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 Writing without typos is outdated.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. Justin
    Justin says:

    I stumbled across your blog and have had the opportunity to read a few of your posts and am impressed. What I found interesting here was your statement, “The irony is that most people who are great at the rules and details of grammar do not have great social skills…”

    I work with someone regularly that definitely fits the bill. I’ve taken a beating on some of the writing I’ve done and this helped put it in perspective…thank you!

  2. Christian
    Christian says:

    “The irony is that most people who are great at the rules and details of grammar do not have great social skills…”

    So to increase social skills one should begin communicating poorly?

  3. Paul
    Paul says:

    No, but it would help anyone detail-oriented to learn how, and when, not to focus so much on them.

    I am borderline Asperger’s myself, so I know how absorbing they can be. But the plain fact is that they are the trees people can’t see the forest for.

    Like anything, real mastery involves learning the rules, then forgetting you know them.

    Just don’t let typo one onto that resumé. They’ll take any excuse to $#!!can it these days.

  4. Christian
    Christian says:

    “Like anything, real mastery involves learning the rules, then forgetting you know them.”

    Exaaaaactly, and that’s what I was going to say. But that is a far cry from, “And this is largely how people use grammar – to make snobbish judgments.” Some people may use them that way but don’t let that make you lose (not “loose;” yes, “loose” has a different meaning than “lose”) sight (not “site”) of what grammar is really for: to communicate effectively. All the snobbish people in the world can’t change that . . . but I should also point out that the mere pointing out of a grammatical error does not constitute snobbery, unless pointing out that people should forget about following rules of grammar also constitutes snobbery, a strange sort of inverted snobbery. “Look at us, we’re the people who don’t care if we communicate effectively. We’re so much better than those who do;” which is the tone and tenor of Penelope’s original entry here.

    • Deb
      Deb says:

      Kudos, Christian. It’s time someone stood up against grammatically-challenged people indulging in reverse snobbery. On similar gounds common courtesy and decency were discarded (“these are trappings of class-conscious aristocrats, you know”!). I believe Lynne Truss has commented on both these phenomena in her ‘Eats Shoots & Leaves’ and ‘Talk to the hand’.

      There’s a nice little saying in India about such behaviour: “Ek toh chori, upar say seena jori” (ask any Indian for the correct idiomatic meaning).

    • Paul
      Paul says:

      Yes, Pen does cop a bit of a bad ‘tude here. But bad ‘tudes, like stereotypes, often have some basis in fact.

      The unstated premise – a largely true one – behind said ‘tude is that by and large, humanities education of any kind is devalued in the Real Working World. It’s the B-schoolers, engineers, and increasingly, codegeeks who do the hiring, firing, spending, and promoting. And if you’re not one of them, you need to talk to them in language that does not put them off.

      As a rhetoric/tech comm student myself, I can state that the nonhumanities folk do have a lot to gain from meeting us wordnerds halfway. It is, really, all about communication, clarity, and transparency – making things easier to use and do.

      We do have a fur piece to go, however, as you’ll see if you do any work with open source CMS software. The zero-documentation, slapdash-answers-on-help-forums crowd is the hot hangout lately, and its lingua franca is the international pidgin known as developers’ English. If you aren’t fluent in PHP and MySQL, you’ll find it tough breaking into this “cooperative” community.

      The old elites fall, but new ones take their place, sometimes without anyone planning it thus.

  5. Zohra O'Doherty
    Zohra O'Doherty says:

    I really wanted to say that I don’t agree with this article, that I think good grammar is important and that it’s really quite sad to think of it being replaced by blog and SMS text message language… But then I realized I’m not perfect at grammar and I’m probably making a lot of mistakes in what I’m writing right now.

  6. Christian
    Christian says:

    I think I get the subtle humor in Zohra’s post, which, at least at my quick first glance, has no spelling or grammatical errors in it.

  7. Mary Brace
    Mary Brace says:

    Grammar reveals nothing of the cost of one’s education, but everything about the amount of importance, concentration and dedication one attaches to it. OTOH, poor grammar and usage skills in paid, public writing by an otherwise educated person demonstrates a level of incompetency in those doing the hiring.

    But why is being good at grammar more important than, say, having good social skills?

    Because people are going to wonder why your boss hired someone off the short bus to send out the company newsletter, for starters, and then they’re going to get the funny idea in their head that they’re more qualified for the job you talked your way into without having any actual skill. And that (yes, I know that’s a broken rule) is going to lead to all kinds of funky places.

    Sars has the right of it: You don’t have to know how to spell everything in the dictionary, and you don’t have to have the serial-semicolon rule embroidered on a pillow, but if you have reached voting age in the United States, you need to know the basics of English usage, because if you don’t, you look like an idiot.

  8. Christian
    Christian says:

    But why is being good at grammar more important than, say, having good social skills?

    That’s creating a false dichotomy. To the best of my memory nobody sticking up for good grammar here has also said that social skills don’t matter. “Why do we need cars if we also have airplanes?”

  9. Steve C.
    Steve C. says:

    Gads, I haven’t been back here for a while, but I’m really surprised this poor horse hasn’t long since been beaten to death.
    The way I see it, making some of the more esoteric grammatical errors is fairly common, perhaps even acceptable under certain circumstances. But if you can’t tell the difference between loose and lose, there, their, and they’re, you are just not going to be credible, no matter how much you may actually know about a given subject.
    Poor grammar and spelling, and how you use language, are a lot like table manners: you can tell right off what circles one has traveled in, how sophisticated one is. I’m as distrustful of snobs as I am of pinheads, but that’s the hard truth. It’s the same as the old saw: “you are defined by the company you keep.”
    Steve C.

  10. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    Actually, what bothers me about the Google thing are a couple things that have so far escaped mention.

    Instead of “Vote for the one that will appear here!” it should read, “Vote for the one you would like to appear on the Google homepage!”

    Thus correcting two problems: #1, “here” is ambiguous, and could apply to “vote” (i.e. it could mean “vote here” instead of the intended meaning), and #2 Google is not commanding you to vote for the winner – Google is asking you to vote for the one you want to win.

    While most Google employees instinctively would reject my edits on sheer length, consider that those edits would most likely result in (a) more votes, because it uses the word “you” and people like to be addressed personally and (b) more brand strength for Google, because the word Google appears, and that can’t be a bad thing. Also, it’s simply easier to read/parse/comprehend, meaning the average user is more likely to pay attention to it regardless of whether or not they can appreciate the impeccable grammar.

    I agree with you that there exist instances where grammar is not important – this is especially true of day-to-day business communication. However, the example you picked is most certainly not one of them.

  11. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Sorry, but I strong disagree with the idea that grammar shouldn’t count heavily when applying for a job or just on the impression of an individual. Grammar shouldn’t have to apply to young, grade school children when they are learning to put their thoughts on paper so as to not to hinder expression of ideas or fantasies. But with adults and particularly young, college educated adults, bad grammar indicates badly educated. Acceptance of bad grammar or inability to communicate is part of America’s dumbing down process and to accept it and forgive it only serves to devalue standards.
    Perhaps we need to be more truthful to recognize that not every “college educated person” is “higher-educated.” In other words not every college graduate received an “academic diploma” because many “technical/vocational” schools were created and referred to as “colleges or universities” to be more inclusive.
    Using correct grammar in English (or any other language) separates the educated from the uneducated and texting like “shorthand or speedwriting” of the past shall never
    replace the proper use of a language.

  12. Brad
    Brad says:

    I find that, especially when writing online, good grammar might distance people from your content. If you are too prim and proper about what you are writing it wont work. People go online for information because they want to get to it fast, read it fast and easily understand it.

  13. Christian
    Christian says:

    “People go online for information because they want to get to it fast, read it fast and easily understand it.”

    Wow, there’s still people here who just don’t get it. Good grammar is not about being “prim and proper” to show how marvelous you are. It is about communicating effectively and I might add communicating quickly as well. Bad grammar kills and slows down effective communication and increases the time it takes for the reader to understand the writer’s intent. I’m not sure why that’s so hard for people to grasp. If you’re so into bad grammar as opposed to good grammar why don’t you try communicating your ideas by barking at people?

  14. Deb
    Deb says:

    I’ll wholeheartedly second Christian on this. So many times I’ve been frustrated by SMS-style language, all capitals or the absence of puncutation on emails, blogs & even websites which totally hamper reading. This is besides grammatically wrong and/or nonsensical words and expressions which take quite a while to decipher.

  15. Carey
    Carey says:

    I know a woman who has less than perfect grammer and spelling. This means it can be difficult to understand her writing. She’s also anorexic and has a high stress family situation. I don’t know if the errors in her writing are the result of a disrupted education or dyslexia. I do know it get worse if she’s upset. So I really don’t need grammer to know how she’s feeling.

    Assuming she’s stupid and careless because she doesn’t know the diffrence between to and too is short sighted. It does a disservice to a women who cares for her sick mother from 7AM every morning.

  16. Christian
    Christian says:

    Okay, finally found that the smartest person in the world has backed me up on this. Everything after this is what I just e-mailed my brother about this topic of grammar (wish I could add emphasis to some of the things she says):

    ***********************************

    “Marilyn” puts it well:

    You need to learn every single principle [of grammar] because less-than-great grammar dooms you to a life of being misunderstood. And when you communicate in writing, as more and more of us do in this age of e-mails and texting, you may not even know whether the recipient misunderstands. When you're an adult, you may not remember the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, but that was never the point. The point is to understand grammatical principles so well that you internalize the logic. Then you can communicate beautifully and with no effort at all.

    http://www.parade.com/askmarilyn/2010/10/Sundays-Column-10-10-10.html

    But for some bizarre, inexplicable reason everyone in 2010 thinks that learning and using good grammar and spelling is about being egotistical and trying to appear better than others and that using good grammar and spelling is so unattainable that only pretentious prima donnas would bother to do it.

  17. Erik Sherman
    Erik Sherman says:

    >> 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.<<

    This is why it is helpful to pay attention to details of communication, whether grammar or rhetoric – and I'd argue that to grasp rhetoric, which is essential, requires practice at the grammatical level. In this case, you state that Google is well trafficked, but then make the unwarranted and unsupportable assumption that a person writing on the page knowingly violated AP style rules. There is no connection between popularity and someone's knowledge (the classic fallacious bandwagon argument).

    Furthermore, you assume that Google pays any attention to the AP Style book and, if it did, that it was capable of hiring someone who would be incapable of error.

    All this is trivial on one level. On another, it isn't. Strong communication means the ability to say what you mean and construct effective arguments. Work on grammar to build attention and clear thought is, I think, a practice ground for the more difficult and critical ability to construct a sound argument.

    As for your challenge:

    "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."

    Off the top of my head, I'll go with "Sorrow: its penance." Not a sentence you're likely to come across, and not the best use of standard grammar, but then, you argue that grammar isn't important anyway. Depending on whether the author meant to write "it's" or "its", we get two distinctly different sentences:

    Sorrow: it's penance – meaning that sorrow is a form of penance in general,

    or

    Sorrow: its penance – meaning that sorrow is the specific penance of some entity without a specified gender.

    Again, it's not a natural example, but then, you claimed that it wasn't possible to come up with one. If even at that level your argument falls apart, what does it do when broadened? There are cases where rules of grammar or style won't overly obscure the meaning of writing. But that is not true in all cases, and it certainly isn't a reason to be sloppy, because you may never know in advance whether your mistake might actually make a difference.

  18. kidding?
    kidding? says:

    So what’s next? Will Irregardless become a word just because enough people use it? Will aint instead of are not, ahiiit instead of all right, axe instead of ask, u instead of you become acceptable grammar? Should we all now court mediocrity? Is the lowest common denominator the example to live by? Can we all spell in acronyms now? MOG I LOL @ UR HOLE ARGUMENT! (Yes, hole instead of whole).

  19. Bingo Babe
    Bingo Babe says:

    Hey, I really liked this article and definitely agree that good grammar is important, no matter what your writing style. I mostly write in an informal style, however that doesn’t give me an excuse to throw the book out the window and start writing like an illiterate 8 year old. Thanks again.

  20. Joe
    Joe says:

    I was a language arts teacher, high school and college, for 24 years before becoming a professional writer and editor. I had always taught it’s like doing dishes. If you don’t do the dishes or vacuum up when you’ve scheduled me to visit your house, I’m probably close family.

    But I’m not, then WTF?

    I won’t notice that you *did* do the dishes. It’s just expected. I’ll certainly notice if you *didn’t* do them. While you’re trying to make small talk, I’ll be partly distracted wondering why you let that go. And I’ll wonder what it implies about your regard for me. Did I have to be more important before that mattered to you?

    Following the conventions of written English is usually not so much about clarity as it is about showing the reader that what you wrote for him or her mattered enough to edit it well.

    No. It’s more. It’s that you thought the *reader* mattered.

    Those who notice your errors become distracted or even annoyed with you. That’s not good writing.

    Letting your writing go public without editing it well is about the same as shoving it at them, saying, “I’m too important to make sure this is correct for you,” or “This wasn’t important enough to waste more of my time on — but I expect you to read it.”

    -JF Bradfield (Sr. writer/editor of an PR firm)

  21. grammarlover
    grammarlover says:

    Affect and effect can each function as either verb or noun.
    The sad movie affected (had an effect on) his affect (emotion).
    She effected (made happen) the desired effect.
    (not that anyone would want to use either of these specific sentences.)

    I think it’s good to learn basic grammar and spelling, especially those rules that apply over 90% of the time, such as it’s vs. its.
    A lot of grammar and even spelling rules have a logic and beauty to them. Understand the logic and you’ll rarely slip.
    Example: its vs. it’s
    ask yourself:
    can I replace it with “it is”?
    if and only if yes, then use the apostrophe.

    There’s a bit more to apostrophes, but understand the logic of apostrophes once (preferably before 5th grade, when you still have lots of time on your hands), and you’ll always use apostrophes correctly.

    Folks who refrain from using grossly incorrect language (e.g., It’s switch is red, and its time to turn it off) make their business look worthier and more reputable.

    But I agree there exist lots of silly style rules, many of them overly picky and subjective, and I pay ltd. attn. to ’em.

  22. Emma
    Emma says:

    I disagree with your assertion that education plays a role in one’s understanding of grammar rules.  I’m not perfect, but I have pretty good grammar and spelling for an 18-year-old.  However, I rarely paid attention in high school and nearly flunked out.  I’ve only completed one year of college, and failed English class during my first semester.  My friends are TERRIBLE with both verbal and written grammar.  I also rarely read books, nor did I as a child.  I think some people just have a better feeling for sentence rhythm and structure than others.  I started reading at age two, so maybe that has something to do with it.
    As much as I love grammar and spelling, I don’t find it particularly important unless you’re writing something for school.  On the internet, write however you want.  Writing’s supposed to be a form of self-expression and communication.  To apply strict rules to that would be stifling and would obstruct the flow between fingers and mind.

  23. Alan
    Alan says:

    Bad grammar means that the writer doesn’t care about being correct. And, if the writer doesn’t care about being correct, you had better not be taking her seriously.

    One useful skill is to be able to distinguish a native-language dummy from a person who is struggling with a new language. It can be done. People who learn new languages are to be admired.

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