Words matter

Dec 31, 2023

AEC marketers must uphold communication standards, ensuring precision in language for clear, consistent, and defensible messaging.

For those of you who don’t follow Merriam-Webster on Instagram, you may have missed the news. The word “irregardless” is coming to a dictionary near you. Cue the groaning. And please, make it loud! What is the English language coming to?

The great people at Merriam-Webster go on to explain their position:

  • “The word has been in use since 1795.”
  • “It has been used by a large number of people for a long time with a specific and identifiable meaning.” (Yes, to mean regardless!)
  • “Dictionaries define the breadth of the language, not simply the elegant parts at the top.”

Whether you agree with this position or not, it is defensible, the logic is sound, and the dictionary, after all, is the authority on such matters. Now that the groaning has died down, I imagine you are asking, what does this have to do with AEC marketing?

Spelling matters. I imagine at some point in time, your firm may have conducted a charrette that included some discussion of stormwater.

Or perhaps it was a charette that included some discussion of storm water.

Potato potahto you say? I think not.

Punctuation matters too. I have also been presented, usually at the eleventh hour, pages of proposal copy from a project manager and each sentence is separated with two spaces (yes, I know you can use Find and Replace to fix this but honestly, why should anyone have to do that or even know it can be done? Unless you are using an actual typewriter, this is indefensible), when the rest of the proposal document uses only one.

I know many highly educated professionals who refuse to use of the Oxford comma. Yet these same people are upset when their personal bio says they “enjoy cooking their family and their pets.”

Nitpicking you say? Tell that to your family and your pets.

You are the authority. I’m not here to tell you which way is correct any more than I am going to write to Merriam (yes, we are on a first name basis) to try and get irregardless removed from the dictionary.

What I am here to tell you is that it is important for you to decide.

Marketers in the AEC industry fulfill many roles – one of which is creating, implementing, and defending communication standards. Think of yourself as the Merriam-Webster of your firm. You decide what’s in and what’s out. Or you should.

It’s not about being picky. The point is to create rules for the firm that result in clear, consistent, and defensible communication.

An example: What is a “master plan”? If you ask my friend Merriam, you’ll find this: A plan giving overall guidance.

If you google that term – master plan – you’ll get more than 2.3 million results.

And if you search on the term masterplan, as some firms represent it, you’ll get about 84 million results and a different definition from Oxford Languages: A comprehensive or far-reaching plan of action.

Even the Dictionary of Architecture & Construction (Fourth Edition, McGraw Hill) is vague in its attempt at a definition: A plan, usually graphic and drawn on a small scale but often supplemented by written material, which depicts all the elements of a project or scheme.

Is any of that specifically relevant to what your firm means when they use the term master plan? Or masterplan? I suspect the answer is no.

Your spec writers and attorneys will thank you. It isn’t just AEC marketers who are concerned with your word choices. Consulting your internal specification writers will go a long way toward precise communication too. Asphalt is not the same as bituminous; decorative is not the same as ornamental; turf is not the same as lawn.

Unlike the medical and financial industries, AEC firms don’t have industry-defined restrictions on marketing and contract language. However, your legal counsel should be consulted on a consistent, periodic basis to ensure contracts are free of wording that over-promises.

Get the word out. Do you have a style guide? Many companies do. And unfortunately, a lot of them are the definitive resource for logo use. And that’s all.

I would argue that it is just as important to take a clear, consistent, and defensible stand regarding language as it is to define the white space required around your firm’s insignia.

Language is not your brand but it can definitely impact your brand – positively or negatively.

Time to investigate. You don’t have to be a grammarian or walk around the office clutching your coffee mug that proclaims “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” (Although I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.) But you might need to become an investigator for a while.

Talk with your team. Read recently submitted proposals, social media posts, or any written materials that have been produced for external and internal use. Talk with your spec writers. Connect with your attorneys.

Where are the inconsistencies and the points of confusion?

Talk with your clients. Listen to how they talk about your work. What words or phrases can you borrow from them that may better represent your firm and your services?

Channel your inner Einstein. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Therein lies the challenge: First, out of all the knowledge and understanding your firm holds, what needs to be communicated? Second, how do you say it – clearly and consistently? Third, what defensible choices will you make that are most relevant for your firm and your audience? Fourth, follow Merriam-Webster on Instagram, regardless. 

Jane Lawler Smith, MBA, is the marketing manager at Derck & Edson, LLC. She can be reached at jsmith@derckandedson.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.