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 Writing without typos is outdated.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…