Good grammar might derail your career

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I love grammar. I can remember in sixth grade when we spent weeks parsing sentences. There was a moment of self-awareness when I thought to myself, “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 it's not normal.

My first real corporate job came right after I went to graduate school for English. The job I landed was managing content for Ingram Micro‘s web site. The experience I had was HTML—I turned my master's thesis into HTML before anyone knew what HTML was.

So the head of copy writing had to teach me the AP Stylebook. I was the only person in the department who had gone to graduate school for English. I was the only person who had been published in literary journals. But when it came to grammar, there is a whole book of rules I had to learn so I could write in the Fortune 500.

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 blog post 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 naturally comes at the heels of good grammar.

(Please note that I am not talking about typos, even though I do think you should largely ignore them. Writing without typos is outdated.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 would be booming. But instead, the riddled-with-typos blogging industry is booming.)

What good grammar reveals is what sort of education you had. 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. Here's a great example of someone doing just that. The person who wrote the post says that if you don't know grammar rules, you're stupid.

It's snobbish because it's a set of rules that are not actually that useful. 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 actually interesting, and even created a bestselling book: Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Most grammar rules don't matter, though. That is, if you get them wrong, the reader still can find the meaning. For example, few people know when to use effect and when to use affect. But it doesn't matter because the first is a noun and the second is a verb so the likelihood you’ll mistake the meaning of a sentence because of a grammar error in this case is extremely low.

Here's another example: Find me a sentence with the wrong version of it's that you can't understand due to the error. Wait. No. Forget it. Because you can't. So a lot of grammar does not clarify meaning, it just serves to show you are good at grammar.

But why is being good at grammar more important than, say, having good social skills? It shouldn't be. People get hired and fired for getting along with people. Not for knowing when to use lay and when to use lie. The irony is that most people who are great at the rules and details of grammar do not have great social skills — it's just how the brain works.

Why do we need to spend our brain power learning the rules of grammar if it is not interesting to us? Why not focus on what we like? Really, if each company is hiring a range of personality types with a range of talents, then only twenty percent will be interested in the philosophy of grammar, and only twenty percent will be good at memorizing 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!

Test yourself: Can you find 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.”

But look, 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. And if you don't, you risk being more newspaper and less Internet, and we know where that's going to put your career…

248 replies
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  1. LPC
    LPC says:

    Violating grammar rules is fine by me. If done with style to reinforce a voice. But I’m not a supporter of violating grammar rules just because you’re lazy. Unless of course you are blogging about a fire raging in the canyon above your house in which case all constraints are released.

  2. Mr. Tldz
    Mr. Tldz says:

    A style guide is not a grammar guide. The choice between “which” and “that” is, most of the time, not a grammatical one. That is, most of the time, “which” and “that”, when there is a choice between them, convey the same grammatical information.

    Style guides often propound unhelpful choices made by someone else that only apply, at best, to a limited situation, as though they were describing moral absolutes for all time and space. Newspapers need them because newspapers want to project a unified voice. That’s probably why group blogs are more interesting: they have more voices.

    It’s probably correct to say that formal written newspaper english has its standards, but that, for example, formal written scientific english has different and conflicting standards. For example, the passive voice is mandatory in a lot of scientific research when describing experiments, but the passive voice is eschewed by newspaper style guides. That’s not a grammatical issue. It’s a style issue.

    All the above being said, the point that insisting on only one style of english as true, complete and correct is a great way to turn your career into a pile of ashes.

    • J-Red
      J-Red says:

      I agree with this poster. That Google post has zero grammatical errors. Word choice and grammar are very different things, but I digress.

      I care about grammar and spelling when I care about the effort that went into the composition. If you are drafting a resume or writing an academic paper, you had better not have any typos or glaring grammatical mistakes. If you are firing off a blog post while you eat your afternoon snack at work, I’ll overlook the flaws.

      • Christian
        Christian says:

        “If you are firing off a blog post while you eat your afternoon snack at work, I’ll overlook the flaws.”

        Yes, we all agree with that. We recognize there are times when informality is acceptable.

  3. Jay Schryer
    Jay Schryer says:

    Well said, and true 99% of the time. However, I work as a medical editor, and I believe that in some cases (like medical and scientific articles), proper grammar is essential to convey the intended meaning. I can also imagine that financial reports need to be written as clearly and concisely as possible, to ensure that everyone who reads them can make informed choices.

    Like I said, I don’t think it matters 99% of the time. But when it matters, it really matters.

    But then again, perhaps I’m just trying to defend my job :)

    • John Grabowski
      John Grabowski says:

      > Like I said, I don’t think it matters 99% of the time. But when it > matters, it really matters.

      > But then again, perhaps I’m just trying to defend my job :)

      No you’re not. You have no idea how many times I have been unable to complete a freeware software installation because the person who labored for months over complex code could not type proper and clear instructions, and I could not decode what they were trying to say in their tortured prose. Even when I write for clarification, I get a hastily hashed-together email that makes even less sense. What really gets me is when I’ll ask, “Did you mean [blah-blah-blah] or [blah-blah-blah]?” and they reply, “Yes, that’s it.”

      So many people simply cannot write at even an elementary school level. Many have masters degrees. Frightening.

  4. Bethany
    Bethany says:

    I disagree with this post. While a piece of writing generally does not need to perfectly follow AP, Chicago, GPO, or other styleguides, it should follow some basic rules so that it makes sense. More often than not, cluttered language and bad grammar just hide the meaning. The Plain Language movement is my favorite grammar movement for this reason. Good grammar should be clear and easily understood.

    Also, I will freely note that I hate when people misuse effect and affect. It’s not just about showing how you were educated, but whether you care about the little things. I know that not all CEOs care about the little things (you wrote once that you’re not a little thing person) but learning a simple lesson (such as 99% of the time when you mean “x” you use this word and not that word) isn’t rocket science and it shows some care and concern that many people require.

    That said, blogs do have their own style and I would be a bit shocked to find one that perfectly followed a major styleguide. Writing should always match the audience.

    • Caitlin
      Caitlin says:

      Yeah I hate it when people misuse ‘affect’ and ‘effect’. ‘Affect’ is a verb and ‘effect’ is mostly a noun. Sometimes ‘effect’ can be a verb but it means something quite different to ‘affect’.

      I am not sure if it’s a grammar fault or if it’s verging on malapropism but I really hate it when people say ‘literally’ for emphasis when it’s not actually literally true. “He literally tore strips off me” / “I literally flew down the street” / “My eyes literally popped out of my head”. Um really? Did it hurt? Did you have to flap your arms? Did you need help putting them back in?

      I also always notice it when people say ‘unorganized’ when they mean ‘disorganized’, or ‘less’ when they should say ‘fewer’. I’m tolerant about it though – it doesn’t drive me crazy and I know better than to correct them in speech. (Now if I’m editing their writing it’s another story!).

      Of course, some US rules are different to UK rules. For example, you probably think that I should have written: ‘some U.S. rules are different to U.K. rules’. Really, that’s just an American grammar rule and not an English language one.

      • LPC
        LPC says:

        No I think you should have written US rules are different THAN UK rules. Or maybe different from. We don’t say different to.

      • ethelynn
        ethelynn says:

        not especially tolerant- you’ll enjoy life more if you can hear the message over the rules. Life is poetry.

      • Caitlin
        Caitlin says:

        @LPC Even American linguists can’t agree on ‘different to/from/than’.

        Strunk and White say it’s ‘different from’ and definitely not ‘different than’.

        Fowler says it’s complete nonsense that you can’t say ‘different to’ and both ‘different to’ and ‘different from’ are correct. He doesn’t mention ‘different than’.

        However, Bartleby is on your side, saying that ‘different to’ is only correct in British English.

        Whatever. :-P

        @ethelynn When I say I’m ‘tolerant’, I mean that I’m not so socially inept that I correct people. Unless I’ve specifically been asked to edit something for style and grammar, then I won’t mention it.

        I’m quite capable of hearing the message over the rules. As a writer, I also know that the rules can help clarify and amplify the message. There are also times to break the rules – preferably as a style choice rather than unintentionally. Grammar should be your servant and not your master.

    • John Grabowski
      John Grabowski says:

      I agree with all those, plus people who think it’s always correct to say “I” and that “me” should be banished from all “educated” conversation.

      Our own president does this all the time: “An invitation was sent to both Michelle and I.” Arugh! To me this always sounds like someone trying to sound extremely educated but revealing just the opposite.

  5. Alli
    Alli says:

    Generally, I agree, though I do think grammar is, to some extent, linked to communication and an idea without someone who can communicate it is almost as useless as an idea without someone who can execute it.

  6. Stacy
    Stacy says:

    The point about the Google homepage is interesting, but what about the more flagrant and whimsical grammar choices favored by some sites. For example, insists on using the word “embiggen” rather than enlarge, however if I wrote “embiggen” in one of my document I would be laughed out of my job.

  7. Lance Haun
    Lance Haun says:

    This will be a fun thread to watch. I did a similar post about spelling mistakes on your resume (here) and people absolutely flipped out.

    People are incredibly judgmental about spelling and grammar mistakes. They assume laziness or stupidity rather than examining what the person is actually trying to convey. Getting caught up in the minutia of something that doesn’t dramatically change the meaning of what a person is comunicating is more obnoxious than the mistake itself. And if you got worked up by that missing “M” in communicating when it is clear what the word is, you’re really missing something else.

    • Pat Rocchi
      Pat Rocchi says:

      Bingo, Lance. You nailed this in a well-written reply. The “over” example cited is no big deal, and the “that/which” example is just plain wrong; Google’s orginal sentence was correctly written. You also make a good case for putting grammar in a positive light.
      In general, this whole post was a form of snobbery by a boor who wants everyone to adhere to her standards. “Grammar is no big deal since I don’t know it all that well. If you are paying too much attention to it, well, you’re anal.”

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Spelling and grammar mistakes in a resume tell me that you aren’t meticulous enough to work for me.

      You should spend more than enough time on your resume to correct typos and grammatical errors. It’s your foot in the door and the first impression an employer has of you.

      Specifically speaking to this article, the AP Style Guide doesn’t actually have much to do with grammar, it has to do with style. “Over” and “more than” are both perfectly correct when it comes to English grammar. Perhaps Google uses a different style guide? I write for a living and the company I write for uses an internal style guide completely unrelated to the AP Style guide.

  8. Editormum
    Editormum says:

    Yes, I found both “errors.” Problem is, only one of them is truly an “error.”

    The use of “over” when referring to a quantity is truly an error, but it is a minor, and very common, error. I believe it began with newspaper reporting — when you have to write a 25-character headline, “more than” takes up too much real estate. This is one of the few minor errors that I, as a professional editor, will tolerate in all but the most formal writing.

    The use of “that” and “which,” however, is highly debated among grammarians. You could make a case for using either “that” or “which” in the Google example, depending on whether you judge the qualifier “will appear here” to be restrictive or non-restrictive. But I’ll bet you don’t really want me to go into a long analysis of that idea here. :-)

    So I’ll make it short. Style guides, like the AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, Gregg’s Reference Manual, the MLA Style Guide, etc. (and there’s a boatlod of them), have been developed to define an individual publishing house’s standards in the grey areas of grammar and usage. One house chooses email; another dictates e-mail as the preferred spelling. Neither is right; neither is wrong. These stylistic rules are flexible.

    The rules of pure grammar, however, are not. The correct use of lay and lie or effect and affect are both inflexible and important. And while misuse of its and it’s is unlikely to completely derail your career, such mistakes indicate an overall disregard for small details that may cause concern for a potential employer. Because employers, ultimately, want people who are smart, capable, and detail-oriented.

    • tootles
      tootles says:

      Although it may not matter, I’ve always been vexed by when to use “which” vs. “that” – anyone have any easy-to-remember guidelines for this?

  9. mave
    mave says:

    I don’t think poor grammar is the worst of the crimes being committed in that Google blurb. Overall it’s just poorly written and poorly communicated. I don’t tend to have too much of a problem with breaking grammar rules if the text makes sense and exudes style, but when it just looks illiterate and awkward I put my foot down.

    I also strongly disagree with the assumption that we should follow along behind Google or risk falling into obscurity. I’ve worked for enough “hip”, “cachet” companies to know that there are as many simple incompetents there as anywhere else. In the end we need to use our good sense and personality to stay relevant, and to hell with all the so-called “cultural leaders”.

  10. Someone
    Someone says:

    I also disagree. “Nobody else cares about doing it right…so let’s stop giving a shite too!”

    I’ve always been a grammar and spelling natural, and taught college expos courses. Oh sure, we only care about good grammar to be snobs. And we women should hide our brains too, for fear of scaring off anyone who prefers not to be challenged. *rolleyes*

    What you’re reading as a general relaxation of rules is only your failure to pick up on how CONTEXT, a change of register, is what affects the level of correctness required. A blog is less formal than a PhD paper, with commensurate levels of expected rectitude.

    There is nothing wrong with being informal in the right place. A sophisticated writer knows when and where to bend the rules, and can wield them properly where needed. An ignorant one cries “snobbery.”

  11. Juliette
    Juliette says:

    Love this!
    Under way is two words unless one is referencing a ship. In other words, ships get underway; projects are under way. I love the specificity of the usage in this case.

  12. Puf
    Puf says:

    In regards to spelling, I will paraphrase Andrew Jackson, who said something to the effect of not having a use for a person that can spell a work only one way. I agree to that!

    In regards to grammer, I personally have always preferred to write in the vernacular, it’s just more fun.

  13. V
    V says:

    I wonder how many grammatical errors are hidden in my comment. A number of things came to mind after reading this post and the comments. Full disclosure: I am a linguist, and I have pretty strong opinions.

    First, I get so frustrated by the phrase “good grammar,” because the words hide their actual meaning. “Good grammar” is used to mean “grammar that is correct according to the dialect that is dominant in our society.” In this case, that’s the grammar of predominantly white, middle-class, college-educated people somewhere between the ages of 18-65 who are native English speakers (that’s probably not an exhaustive description). There’s nothing inherently better about this dialect of English than African American Vernacular English, or the English of rural Appalachia, or any other dialect. This is just the dialect that happened to be used by the dominant section of society, so it got labeled “standard.” But other dialects have their own grammar rules, and while I may be pretty good at abiding by the rules of our dominant dialect’s grammar, I’m sure I’d be pretty bad at speaking fluent AAVE. So I think it’s important to be pretty “forgiving” and realize that in most cases (maybe not scientific journals), if you can understand someone’s meaning, that’s really all that’s important.

    With that rant out of the way, I do think it’s important, career-wise, to be able to have “good grammar” for the dominant dialect of whatever country you live in. It’s a signal that you send out to people about your identity, and in the case of getting and keeping a job, whether you grew up speaking a different dialect of English or you grew up speaking Vietnamese, it’s probably going to help your chances if you can perform the identity of someone with “good grammar.” Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the way it is.

    One final point that frustrates me about the “good grammar” discussion: it so seldom takes into account that language is constantly changing. Language is always in flux, and rules continually come in and out of fashion. Often times the change is so slow that we don’t notice it (for example, I’m not quite sure when it became common practice to say “I wish I was taller” instead of “I wish I were taller,” but it was sometime during my lifetime, I think), but sometimes it’s quick. For example, in the past 10 years, we’ve added some new verbs to English (to google, to friend, and possibly, to embiggen). Of course context is important – again, when you know your audience, you know what identity you want to project, and you know whether it’s okay to use “to friend” as a verb. But still, I think the idea that we can have a universally agreed upon standard for “good grammar” is a little silly, because the definition would have to change a little every day as the way that we use language changes.

    Where this leaves us for situations where it’s very important to have a clear understanding and definition of meaning and grammar, like interpreting legal documents, I’m not so sure…

    • Sarah D
      Sarah D says:

      I like your thinking on this.

      I can’t find the exact quote, but I think it was David Crystal who said something like, if you love language you’ll love how it changes too. It seems to me that too many people who claim to love language really just want to halt it in its tracks and “possess” it.

  14. Ian
    Ian says:

    Yes, you’re crazy. Grammar is important because it creates a common set of rules that we can all use to create meaning. In a language such as English where things like word order and punctuation carry a lot of the meaning in a given phrase, having a common set of rules for these things is essential to being able to communicate. Ignoring common grammar rules would be like ignoring common words – for example, it would be like if I insisted on using the “blaxnorg” instead of “tree” because I like blaxnorg better.


    I think grammar is also most effective when it is treated as something that is more descriptive than prescriptive. Grammar rules aren’t rules the way rules of physics are rules – they don’t exist outside of human consciousness or interaction. They simply describe tendencies in the use of a language that have developed naturally over its history. It makes sense to catalogue them so that we can try to keep up a level of consistency in the language that facilitates clear communication, but not codify them to the point where they are unable to address further, naturally-occuring developments.

    Just because someone can work out your meaning despite your poor grammar, it doesn’t mean you should force them to. So yes, grammar is important. And yes, people should study it.

  15. Brad Gutting
    Brad Gutting says:

    One of the best posts here ever. Fuck the rules. If you play by them all the time, you’ll never go any further than they allow.

    Smart thinking. While I think that some competence is important, don’t mistake “proper” or “good” for “effective.” If the grammar is so bad that it impairs the communication of an idea or an emotion, fine, fix it. But I’d wager that more often than not, ostensibly good grammar gets in the way.

  16. Kevin Marshall
    Kevin Marshall says:

    I’m pretty sure I had this exact conversation with my elementary school grammar teacher about 25 years ago…well OK not this ‘exact’ conversation, but um, it was more or less the same point (oh and for the record, she didn’t like my arguments then either) ;-)

    Still it’s good to see that I didn’t miss out on too much deciding early not to waste too many brain cycles on proper grammar…now I just need the world to realize the same thing about personal hygiene (just kidding – or am I?)

  17. Stuart Foster
    Stuart Foster says:

    Violating grammar is cool by me. As long as you don’t come off as an incoherent jackass spouting AOLspeak.

    If I can understand you and your idea hold merit, I’m not going to care about a typo.

  18. Zach
    Zach says:

    Affect vs Effect

    “Ben’s stint in the army affected his transformation into a man” – that means that Ben’s transformation was influenced or changed in some way by his stint in the army.

    “Ben’s stint in the army effected his transformation into a man” – that means that Ben’s stint was the very cause and catalyst for his transformation.

  19. Cranky Editor
    Cranky Editor says:

    I must pick nits with your Google example.

    Over vs. more than is a style decision. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with “over.” The justification for the style is that over implies physical position, whereas more than implies greater magnitude, so there is something of a danger sometimes that when you say “over 25,000 children” you are talking about a really, really big blanket. But lately that distinction has been blurred and thus it’s much more of a style decision. Will you get thrown aside for using one rather than the other? Of course not. But if you understand the implications of the words, why not use the one that’s more accurate?

    As for the that vs. which, it’s not that you are voting for one doodle (as opposed to voting for several), it’s that there is more than one doodle. “Vote for the doodle, which will win,” implies that there is only one doodle and that it will win if you vote for it. Perhaps this sentence would appear on the Web site of one of the doodle’s creators, where there is no question which doodle they’re advocating for.

    I will agree with above comments that the non-appositive which is coming into fashion. I don’t like it, but I will admit to its increasing frequency. The real divide is between “that” and “comma-which,” or the difference between the essential and the appositive clause. But in this case the “that” is very much correct.

    On the substance of your post:

    In the end, as much as it sucks that people are making “snobbish” judgments about others based on their grammar, it’s based in this truth: Grammatical and style rules are really about how much you care about your writing and how much you respect your readers.

    Language is communication, and part of communication is keeping the reader there and listening. Sure, you’re understandable if you use the wrong form of “it’s/its,” but for every time your language is imprecise or jarring, you run the risk of losing a reader who says to himself or herself, “Gee, this writer couldn’t care less about what he or she has just said” or “Why would this writer think I’m going to waste my time on something he or she didn’t even care enough to edit?” And that sort of defeats the purpose of putting your message out there in the first place.

    In that way, it’s a pragmatic, even a political decision to edit. Edit because whether or not rules are useful, they’re necessary to the larger cause of expressing yourself and keeping an audience. Copy editing = dealing with reality. And not dealing with reality and expecting to be respected for it? Yeah, that’s pretty stupid.

    Just one person’s opinion, and I will cop to making my living as a copy editor, so I’ve got skin in this game.

    • abc
      abc says:

      In response to Cranky editor:

      Language is primarily a tool used for communication. ‘What’ vs ‘How’? Sure, ‘How’ can make the ‘What’ more effective. But ultimately, its(For the grammar police- pronoun refers to ‘How’) purpose is secondary to the ‘What’, and this is the reason why writers shouldn’t care if they lose readers who are more interested in the ‘How’ than the ‘What’.

  20. Laurie | Express Yourself to Success
    Laurie | Express Yourself to Success says:

    Understanding someone’s point is more important to me than someone’s good grammar skills. However, when someone’s poor grammar skills reflect poorly on the company, then I tend not to overlook it as quickly.

    Interesting article with many good points. I’m enjoying the comment section also!

  21. says:

    Penelope, are you sure about that AP Stylebook rule on “that” vs. “which”? I’m looking at the entry on “essential” and “nonessential” clauses (pp. 86-87), and I’m not seeing it. I’ve never heard of such a rule, but maybe I’m missing something.

  22. Theresa Quintanilla
    Theresa Quintanilla says:

    I wonder when people who complain about typos and grammar will begin to realize they are revealing an unpleasant aspect of their personality? When I was a child one of my cousins put on ‘mis-matched’ clothing, and I was so astounded I pointed out to her loudly: “You can’t wear two different prints together!” The reason I remember is that my aunt turned beet red and clearly felt humiliated. Then I felt chagrined (haven’t used that word in years–probably misusing it now). I knew instinctively that mismatched clothing meant much, much less to me than my aunt’s comfort and self-respect. And I think about this when I see people make minor mistakes. Unless I feel they are damaging their image or their company’s image, I ignore it.

    A lady is a person in whose presence a man realizes he’s a gentleman.

  23. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    This post isn’t about how good grammar might derail your career. It’s about how, in your opinion, some people place too much emphasis on good grammar and it’s really not that important. Whether or not I agree with you (and I’m not sure I do), it doesn’t fit the headline at all.

    By the way, the so-called errors in the example sentence are a bit lame. Technically you should use ‘more than’ rather than ‘over’ and I did spot that, since I was looking for it. It’s a minor error though. However, the example of ‘that’ versus ‘which’ is simply AP house style rather than an actual grammar rule.

    In fact, I was taught something quite different. In the style guide to another media organization (and former employer of mine), it says ‘that’ is defining and ‘which’ is descriptive (accordingly ‘which’ must have a comma).

    For example, consider the following sentences:
    I picked up the hat that was red.
    I picked up the hat, which was red.
    I picked up the hat which was red.

    The first sentence means that there was more than one hat and you picked up the red one. The second sentence means that there was just one hat and it was red. The third sentence is grammatically incorrect according to this style guide and some schools of grammar, though not all.

    It’s not really a black-and-white grammar rule – it’s something that grammarians like to debate. The only reason I know about it is because I had to use a house style but that’s not the be-all and end-all of grammar. Media organizations like AP and others need to pick and choose between these contentious rules so that they can have consistency of style, not because there’s right and wrong.

  24. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    While it’s true that grammatical errors may not change the meaning of a sentence, they interrupt the flow of a sentence. Many readers will stop at the incorrect use of “its” to note that the author doesn’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” a practice that breaks up the continuity of a thought and should never be a goal of writing. There are armies of these readers who are not just writers like us. My husband, an architect whose only writing consists of one-sentence emails and who never reads books, will point out to me his co-workers’ grammatical errors in memos and his friends’ misspellings in blogs because he can’t believe they make such stupid mistakes–yes, it’s not just Jodi Gilbert who thinks grammatical errors make people look stupid. Also, look at the many New York Times readers who panic at incorrect uses of superlatives: My point: Readers notice, so it’s a writer’s job to ensure that grammatical errors don’t get in the way of readability.

    It is not impossible to proofread your own work. All you need is a period of time after writing it to be able to effectively proofread, and this is entirely possible with good planning.

    And finally–did you really insinuate that everyone who is good with grammar not only has poor social skills but also has Asberger syndrome? Shame on you!

    • Pia
      Pia says:

      It’s “Asperger’s Disorder.” The error did not bother me, but it did illustrate your point that these things can distract the reader.

  25. Huck Finn
    Huck Finn says:

    For blogs, stories and casual reading, I’ve no qualms about poor grammar to an extent.

    Published works that are meant to be taken seriously, however, are reduced to blog, story or casual reading status when a few egregious grammatical blunders enter the mix.

  26. Kris
    Kris says:

    You’re confusing style and grammar. AP Style is not the definitive style guide for everyone, either.

    Grammar is “correct” when it’s something a native speaker would produce. A sentence is appropriate for the workplace when it is written in the prestige dialect–the more formal dialect they teach in schools. It is important to your reputation to use the prestige dialect most of the time, but it’s not the only “correct” way to speak. Style only matters to a few (journalists, copy editors, etc).

  27. sifi
    sifi says:

    Good points on style vs. grammar.
    There’s a wide range of usage choices, even in a corporate setting. Most of the time you can tell if someone is trying to work to a standard or doesn’t care or is clueless. It’s like non-verbal communication. We need to be aware of what our writing is saying about us.

  28. Brad Fults
    Brad Fults says:

    Ah, a subject dear to my heart.

    First, style choice is completely different from correctness of grammar. Choose the former according to the audience.
    Instead of poor grammar indicating quality of education, I think it indicates the level of care given to one’s communication. Indeed, I know many cases of both Harvard and Cornell graduates with atrocious grammar practices and high school dropouts with impeccable skills. There may be a weak correlation between higher education and better grammar skills, but I prefer to think of them as orthogonal.

    When someone bungles “affect”/”effect” or throws a “their” where it doesn’t belong, I see it as an opportunity to ask that person if they care about the mistake. If they care, I teach them. If they don’t care, I drop the subject and my mental evaluation of that person is changed accordingly.

    There are those who care about what they’re communicating and those who would prefer not to worry about the effects of their ramblings. There is certainly a place in the world for the latter group, but it is a place apart from the precise, high-quality world that I prefer to function in. Imagine if Apple were to release a new iPod that “Let’s you load you’re songs on to an computer.” Would you give them the benefit of the doubt and still pay a premium for their product, or would your opinion of them shift? What might poor grammar indicate about other aspects of the quality of their product?

    As has no doubt been said many times, good ideas are not sufficient to create great products – execution and communication are crucial components. A great idea with shoddy execution is just as worthless as one that is communicated poorly.

    Very simply, whenever I am reading someone’s writing, I am paying them for their content with my time and attention. Content that is careless and riddled with errors is of a lower quality, for which I will not pay as high a price. If the errors are too numerous, I will simply refuse to pay at all.

  29. Critic
    Critic says:

    The truly frightening thing is your last point: that, because Google has decided to use poor grammar, the rest of us should do so also. We don’t know that Google made such a decision; more likely, this was an error. But even so, the mob does not get to decide; learn the language!

    • Kris
      Kris says:

      Yes, the mob does get to decide. That’s what defines a language–how people *use* it. In real life. When you use a dictionary, you are not consulting an authority on how you should use the language, you are consulting the collective uses of how people actually do use the language. An expert merely compiled the uses.

      • Sarah D
        Sarah D says:

        I agree that language should be defined by how people use it. But I don’t necessarily agree that you are consulting the mob when you look up a dictionary. Only valency dictionaries are a strict compilation of actual usage, although most are at least corpus-based these days so are less likely to take a prescriptive approach.

  30. Steve
    Steve says:

    Ah, but writing IS a social skill as well. How you attend to your written word does in fact reflect upon you. If you cannot write properly, some may assume that you also may not speak properly.

    I believe it is always in your own best interest, personally and professionally, to put your best self forward regardless of the medium you communicate in at any given time.

    This post seems more about avoiding the work required to do the best job one can. Whether it is laziness is not for me to judge, but there is a reason why people are asked to take English and grammar classes.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Steve, you bring up an important issue: The idea of doing the best job you can.

      The problem is that we cannot do the best job we can on everything. It’s too limiting. We have to do a lot of things each day that have no extra payoff if we give it our 100% vs. if we give it our 80%. I think that most pieces of writing are like this.

      I also think that people who give 100% to everything are largely ineffective. They have no perspective, no ability to see that things have varied importance.


      • Maus
        Maus says:

        But that is why the distinction between grammar and style is so critical. Applying style correctly requires constant choices and involves greater effort because one must ask “For whom am I writing?” Applying grammar correctly is more like riding a bicycle. Once you’ve learned to do it correctly, it is more or less effortless in the future — beyond the work of writing itself.

      • Steve
        Steve says:


        A valiant effort, but you missed my important point – writing IS a social skill – the one your community uses to communicate with the outside world.

        As to the issue of doing your best, I think your reply illuminates a few important issues.

        Initially, looking at effort versus payoff from a near-sighted perspective (Will this be good enough for what I need to do now?), you may be right at times – 80% might do. But there could be a longer term payoff if your work was consistently demonstrated to be the best you could do. It’s really kind of a slacker’s mentality…or

        It is a sign of someone trying to do too much in too little time with no sense of prioritization to manage the duties to accomplish each day. Sometimes you have to admit some things cannot be done, lest the balance of everything else gets the all-nighter treatment. The end result is a messy and ultimately derailed life of unfinished and unrealized work.

        Maybe it’s time to slow down, reassess what the true priorities are, and feel comfortable enough to let some pursuits go in the name of preserving the ones which are truly important.

        I mean are we really soooooo busy that we use our out of control lifestyles as an excuse not to provide common courtesy in the treatment of the written word?

  31. Ian
    Ian says:

    I think it’s interesting that in all the gnashing of teeth over grammatical niceties that no one I’ve read has pointed out the larger problem with the sentences – – which is that if you read them strictly, you’re voting for the child that will appear on Google’s homepage, not the doodle.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I can’t resist: I think that, technically speaking, the antecedent of “one” is “homepage”, because that is the noun that most closely precedes “one”. So you are actually voting for a homepage. I think. Is this right? I have a feeling that this comment string is full of people who can parse a sentence much better than I can!


      • Editormum
        Editormum says:

        If I were marking the statement in question for a student or one of my editing clients, I would include a marginal note VR: vague reference. It is impossible to identify solely from the sentence whether “the one” referred to is the child, the homepage, the doodle, or a decorative numeral 1. A case could be legitimately made for any of those choices.

  32. JT
    JT says:

    I disagree that using good grammar might “derail” your career. Good grammar is important to me. I also think it’s important for a written message to have a good structure in addition to good grammar. For whatever reason I’m naturally good with it, although I reserve the right to use colloquialisms here and there. I don’t mind if others do too. I’m not a member of the grammar police squad. But I have to say that if I see misplaced apostrophes and comma splices, I’ll usually pay less attention to what I’m reading. My career isn’t suffering. And I’m not socially awkward as a result of using good grammar.

  33. Renae
    Renae says:

    Is it a typo? Or is it ignorance? Since I’m prone to leaving a trail of typos despite my best efforts, and since I don’t know it all, I’m not much bothered by either. The difference to me lays/lies in whether the writer is interested in filling gaps in knowledge and correcting obvious grammatical (not style) mistakes in future communications.

    (Anyone know a sure-fire way to remember lay/lie? I’ve looked it up scores of times but still can’t get it to stick in my head.)

    That said … even ONE typo DOES matter when you spend an hour crafting a very fine cover letter for a long-term editing gig, only to discover two days later, despite reading the stupid thing on the screen four or five times before sending, that you missed a painfully obvious typo…. Sigh.

    But I did learn a valuable lesson: I obviously suck at on-screen editing, I must PRINT and read all crucial documents before sending.

    –Thanks for your thoughts … much appreciated!

    • Angela
      Angela says:

      Renae, the way I always remember lay vs. lie is that you always have to lay SOMETHING. (Insert your own off-color joke here.) Lie, on the other hand, doesn’t require an object.

      I laid my book down on the table.
      I’m going to lie down and take a nap.

  34. Sara
    Sara says:

    I won’t repeat the multiple references to the difference between style and grammar – I will however point out that I detest the argument that it shouldn’t matter if you’re correct if you have enthusiasm and imagination. I’m in the finance field, so perhaps in your world enthusiasm is more important then misusing it’s and its – but I would never tell my employee – who cares about a little rounding error – you’re imaginative. By insinuating that correct grammar doesn’t matter – you’re insinuating that written communication is unimportant and I have too much respect for the linguistically talented to believe that for a second.

    • Agender
      Agender says:

      Nobody here recommends to throw grammar out the window when it comes to highly formal settings, such as the conventional workplace! You’re winding yourself up over a completely phantom argument. And a rounding error wouldn’t be considered a grammatical error. And your incessant abuse of the dash made it difficult for me to follow your train of thought, Ms. “linguistically talented”.

      • Christian
        Christian says:

        “Nobody here recommends to throw grammar out the window when it comes to highly formal settings, such as the conventional workplace!”

        Except for the explicit sum and substance of Penelope’s original post.

  35. Curtis Biel
    Curtis Biel says:

    “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 would be booming. But instead, the riddled-with-typos blogging industry is booming.”

    Not true.. The newspaper industry is failing not from grammar, but from the popularity of the Internet and of course “blogging”. And.. it is very easy to proofread your own writing.. with either a spell check/and Grammar program like MS Word, or many others. Even the FireFox Web Browser has spell check included in it.

    • Joselle
      Joselle says:

      I agree with Curtis. Newspapers are floundering because so much online content is free and easier to access.

      And what of all these now unemployed editors and reporters flocking to the web? They’ll bring their grammar with them.

      That being said, I’m a medical editor and I do want scientific studies that guide people’s health care to be combed over like nobody’s business. Just like I want my surgeon to be a crazy, type A, know-it-all genius.

      As usual, it depends. I don’t mind the typos on blogs at all. In fact, they add character and the meaning, as you’ve said, is not usually lost. I used to read Courtney Love’s internet posts all the time, so I can decipher anything.

      I’ll always take passion and a strong point of view in writing over perfect grammar. But when a magazine or newspaper with tons of editors fouls that up, it makes me distrust their content. What else is wrong?

      And I’m anxious about everything that will be wrong with this comment I’m about to submit.

      • Stacey
        Stacey says:

        In casual conversation and writing, grammar, proper word use, etc. do not bother me.
        When making an argument or in business writing, it bothers me quite a bit. Others will judge you, and judge you harshly.
        Like everyone (at least those who are being honest) I have pet peeves. You’ve hit on one of these. Newspapers are not floundering at all. They are foundering.

    • avant garde designer
      avant garde designer says:

      I’m afraid to comment because this will be the time I do a typo or a major grammar boo-boo (how’s that for fine English:-). However, I disagree with Curtis. Anyone who has worked in writing, editing or graphic design knows it’s impossible to fully proofread your own work.

      Those listed above work so much with their project, they are no longer able to see it in parts, rather they see it as a whole. I was taught to proofread by reading backwards. However, even doing that doesn’t work with my own writing. I know too well what I’ve written and I can skim the words just as easily backwards.

      And finally, if you use spellcheck as your means of proofreading, you’re in trouble. Everyone knows spellcheck is not reliable.

  36. Christian
    Christian says:

    I’m reminded of the scene in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when an exemplary soldier (portrayed by Sting) is executed for his above-average performance because he’s making the other soldiers feel inadequate.

    I don’t believe that the proliferation of amateur, unmoderated blogs correlates directly with the decline of the print industry, nor that “abundance” equates with “success.” As a proofreader, my vision of hell starts with the writing industry collectively shrugging its shoulders and murmuring, “Eh, close enough. People will know what I meant.”

    Heartbreaking is the anti-intellectual movement that claims being correct is a form of elitism with no function beyond making those not “in the know” feel bad about themselves. For me, editing is not just a matter of concision of expression but a plea for sanity! I’ll admit I’m a prescriptivist of the first water, but living language has beggared expression and comprehension quite enough, without the soldiers of literacy laying down their arms and complaining of lower backache.

  37. Pete
    Pete says:

    I disagree. This is just another rationalization for the dumbing-down of Western Society. Next we can regress back to pre-Samuel Johnson days and forget about proper speling and pronunciation. Do you say curtains or cur-ains?

  38. Erika
    Erika says:

    I love grammar too and can’t help being judge-y, but I also love when people think of new words, are creative with language and just plain-old write how they talk.

    I agree you can’t be 100% gramatically correct all the time and get anything done, but some stuff is more important than others — resumes, cover letters, introduction e-mails — THAT stuff should be proofread a thousand times. And when I read basic stuff — not nitpicky stuff — that’s wrong (your/you’re, its/it’s) it always trips me up a bit and takes me away from the author’s point.

    Once I heard that good writing should be as clear as glass, so good that readers get right to the true meaning and aren’t tripped up by either overly flowery writing OR mistakes.

  39. Maus
    Maus says:

    The whole point of class distinction (and that’s what this discussion is really about) is a desire by those who are educated and powerful to have those who are seeking entry to that social circle merit it. If you don’t learn, you cannot earn. Fo’ shizzle!

  40. matt king
    matt king says:

    I agree with a lot of what you wrote, but I also think it’s important to look at it from the quality control angle. It may be 5.0 to not know the difference between affect/effect, but it may also reflect a lack of care about getting things right. Ideas only become great when people get the details right. Sloppy doesn’t help nobody. (you know what’s a sloppy technology? Itunes – sounds like crap, lacks a lot of basic functionality, etc. I know, it’s made gazillions and that’s really all that matters because people care less about quality every day.)

    And I’ll admit, more than/over, around/about, hopefully and bunch of other stuff grate on me, but I don’t hold it against most people.

    And to illustrate the awful cage grammar can be I’d tell people to listen to the last Springsteen record, which is so devoted to operating within the confines of a particular musical structure it sounds tortured and ridiculous most of the time.

  41. Chirag
    Chirag says:

    Right, I’ve only just started reading your blog, so thanks for the nice work!

    Honestly, this is one of the best blog posts I’ve read in terms of presentation and tone, by far. And yes, I know that’s not grammatically correct at all.

    I think Penelope makes an interesting point. Granted the headline may not be accurate (I don’t think it will derail your career per se) but it is important to know how much emphasis/importance we should really associate with grammar. And I agree that we shouldn’t judge people by their grammar, but by their ideas or enthusiasm. I would much rather have 10 talented people with bad grammar and 1 “editor” to make sure the work they churn out is written well, than 10 grammatically perfect people who had no content (which is what we do as a company). I know that won’t work for a newspaper, but I meant outside that sphere.

    And the newspaper not being financially viable, while suspect as a statistic, is the best line of this post and deserves to be tweeted :)


  42. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    The example of what you call “snobbish” judgements contains SPELLING errors, not only grammar errors. It is by no means snobbish to expect an adult to know how to spell properly, since dictionaries are readily available, both online and conventional. Using loose instead of lose is a spelling error – sorry, not acceptable. There is a difference between using a word with a similar meaning (which vs that, in your Google example) and using the wrong word (lose vs loose). And one last comment: as others have said, a style guide is NOT a grammar guide. Style indicates the preferred method for an organization or medium. Grammar is a set of rules that really have nothing to do with “style”. Unlike ‘which’ and ‘that’, style and grammar are not interchangeable. PS: Eats, Shoots & Leaves is one of my all-time favorite books…laugh out loud funny!

  43. calisara
    calisara says:

    Aw good ol’ AP stylebook. Well, I studied the CP stylebook and there is so much to learn, especially when grammar is not your thing. It shouldn’t be the used to socially grade people, but it’s fascinating how poorly most of us rate when it comes to our grammar skills. (With that being said, please don’t just this comment! I write freely, not to be judged.) In communications studies, our professor deducted five marks for every grammatical error. Luckily when it counted, I never lost those marks. But some people failed their assignments because they couldn’t figure out em dash, en dash, hyphen and they protested. They believed their grammar wasn’t the issue, that instead they should be graded on whether or not they can write catchy press releases that get published. They believed that every company would pay someone to copy edit their work, or that someone else would catch the mistakes and not judge them. Perhaps they were onto something, but I think if you are going to pursue a career that relies on drafting grammatically correct work, then you better know your stuff. This might explain why I opted for a non-writing career.

  44. Annie
    Annie says:

    I completely disagree with you, Penelope. If you’re writing a blog, grammar may not be that important. If the sole audience for your writing is a bunch of twenty-somethings, grammar may not be that important. But in most professional writing, GRAMMAR IS IMPORTANT.

  45. Dan
    Dan says:

    zzzzzzzzzzz, do you have something interesting to post? This one put me to sleep.

    How’s that funding coming along? Are you broke yet? I can’t speak for Kegonsa venture fund, but we once visited the State Park at Lake Kegonsa, not a far drive from where you live, and it was very nice. There is a nice place to eat right on the Lake as well.

    Too bad your state has way too many misquitoes to truly enjoy ANYTHING outdoors during the five days of nice weather you do actually have. That is, if you have any money left to eat after your done paying all your local and state taxes.

  46. Kurt Cagle
    Kurt Cagle says:

    In psychological terms, an affect is the experience of feeling emotions (cf. Affect (psychology). Thus, it’s important when discussing grammars to recognize that statements such as “affect is a verb” is only true in the popular case, not necessarily in all cases.

    Overall, as a writer I’ve long held the belief inculcated by my own English teachers: a good writer may knowingly break the rules of grammar in order to achieve a specific effect, but they should know those rules first. There is a world of difference between an educated writer who deliberately breaks the rules and an uneducated one who doesn’t know them in the first place. Too many people never bother to learn these rules in the first place, and their ignorance is usually readily obvious.

  47. kescovedo
    kescovedo says:

    I am not a grammar expert. Those of you who are grammar experts will probably find errors in this post. As Web 2.0 becomes the norm for communication, we are bound to see grammar rules relaxed. Mircoblogging sites such as Twitter have forced people to reduce their thoughts to 140 characters, making both grammar and spelling rules all but non-existent. However, I don’t see this new culture as a free pass to stop abiding by grammar rules. Although text messages and tweets may not allow enough characters for proper comma uses or spelling of the word “y-o-u-r,” I hope that these shortcuts will not spill over into our other written communications.

    While some might call it snobbish to judge the improper use of “it’s” or “you’re” I think that it is normal to be distracted by repeated bad grammar. While one or two errors won’t stop me from understanding the meaning, a blatant disregard for the rules of the English language, as found in text messages and tweets, would definitely distract me enough that I would stop reading.

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