THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Breaking rules: When good grammar isn't so good

In sixth grade, we spent weeks parsing sentences. There was a moment of self-awareness when I thought, "If I let anyone see how much I like this, I'll never get invited to good parties."

So I know I love grammar, and I know that's not normal. I got a masters degree in English and got published in literary journals, but for my first real corporate job I had to learn the AP Stylebook.

An example (which, by the way, is e.g., not i.e.): "Follow up" is two words if it's a noun: "I'm doing a follow up." But it's hyphenated if it's an adjective: "Follow-up meeting."

But when I say I love grammar, that is not what interests me. I'm interested in how we naturally know grammar because we naturally speak in sentences with good rhythm. I will spend an extra hour editing a column by reading it out loud and hearing in my cadence where a preposition is wrong.

This is all to tell you that I think we need to stop judging people by their grammar. We should judge people by their ideas, their creativity, their enthusiasm. None of this comes at the heels of good grammar.

Please note that I am not talking about typos. Writing without typos is outdated. It's impossible to proofread your own work, and it is not financially viable to produce typo-free copy. (If it made financial sense, the newspaper industry– instead of the riddled-with-typos blogging industry– would be booming.)

The more conventional and well-funded your education was, the better your grammar will be. And this is largely how people use grammar— to make snobbish judgments. Yes, there are some grammar rules that, should you violate them, completely change the meaning of your sentence. However, these situations are so rare that they are interesting, and even created a bestselling book: Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Most grammar rules simply don't matter. For example, few people know when to use effect and when to use affect. But because the first is a noun and the second is a verb, there little likelihood you'll mistake the meaning of a sentence.

Here's another example: Find me a sentence with the wrong version of "it's" that you can't understand due to the error. You can't. So a lot of grammar does not clarify meaning; it just serves to show you are good at grammar.

Why should having good grammar be more important than, say, having good social skills? It shouldn't. People get hired and fired for getting along with people. Not for knowing when to use "lay" and when to use "lie."

We really don't need to spend our brain power on such rules. Do you think I'm nuts? Here's what's on Google's home page on May 16, 2009: "Over 28,000 children drew doodles for our homepage. Vote for the one that will appear here!"

Can you spot the two grammar errors?

The AP Stylebook says "over" is a way to move— a preposition. And "more than" must precede a number. Also, if you are voting for one, specific doodle, then the AP Stylebook tells you to use "which" rather than "that."

There is no page in the universe that gets more traffic than the Google home page. So you can bet someone who knows grammar knowingly violated AP Stylebook rules.

Anyway, if Google is deciding that these rules are no longer useful guidelines, then we can all follow suit.

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Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more.

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3 comments

While I understand and appreciate the spirit in which this essay was written, I find it rather sad. The slow crumbling of the English language is something which ought to give us pause. No, I don't use perfect grammar. However, when I am in a business setting, I do think it is important to at least attempt to put my best foot forward. Poor grammar (and typos, in particular) may be evidence of low attention to detail. Depending upon the job, lives could be at stake. A typo or poorly worded description on a pill bottle certainly isn't a little thing. There are times when rules should be more relaxed and forgiving. During social conversation (or when emailing a friend), I actually enjoy the quirks of individuality that poke through. Conversely, in a business setting, I'm fine with grammar and typos being taken into account as part of judging the whole employee. Particularly if that employee represents the company in interactions with the public, ability (or inability) to communicate well in writing will influence the impression of how that business is perceived. By the same token, those who write or teach for a living should probably be held to a more stringent standard. Words are their currency in the workplace. For those professions where a typo can mean the difference between life and death, ability to communicate in writing should be among the most important things used to judge an employee. No, we shouldn’t judge workers only by their grammar; however, for a HUGE number of occupations, it should be a major factor in judging an employee’s effectiveness while on the job.

I have enjoyed many of The Brazen Careerist's columns in the past, but I feel I must write in opposition to this one. (Full disclosure: I teach writing, with an emphasis on grammar, as my own career.)

Suppose that I rewrote her article with an emphasis on clothing rather than grammar. The statement "This is largely how people use [clothing]--to make snobbish judgments." is arguably true. Would it then follow that "we need to stop judging people by their [clothing]" in a business setting? Would that be a reasonable request, Careerist?

Surely most successful business people realize that they need to pay attention to their outfits if they wish to make a good impression. I tell my students that grammar is exactly the same. Rightly or wrongly,
society has always found it useful to have a shorthand method of determining an individual's level of education. From the Middle Ages through about 1900, that signifier was the ability to speak and understand Latin, so at least our current cultural signifier is a bit more useful. If we accept that a well-educated employee has some kind of added value, then why should we ignore an easy measure of whether or not a sizable part of an individual's education has stuck?

I wouldn't argue that every single point in the AP Stylebook is as important as every other point. As teachers, we try to rank the importance of the rules we teach. (Not knowing when to use who vs. whom is a lot less important than avoiding run-on sentences, for instance). But there are many people (and not just those of us who are grammarians) for whom consistently shifting tenses are far more of a faux pas than mixing stripes and checks.