In response to my column highlighting amusing errors, a reader questioned my emphasis on proper grammar.
“I enjoy reading your column,” he wrote, “and I do try to write succinctly. However, in this day and age and with the amount of correspondence there is to read, it seems, trying to get a point across is more important than proper grammar.
“Granted, it is better to write clearly, but sometimes the choice of words, although they may not be exactly correct, does anyone stop to evaluate the writer! An authoritative person’s writing wouldn’t be dismissed just because their sentence structure does not have the correct noun, verb, adjective being used correctly. Just my opinion!”
It’s an opinion I hear often.
Curious about how students in the “Communication in a Technical Environment” class I teach at the University of Minnesota would respond, I shared my reader’s message with them. Although they expressed some sympathy for his position, they also talked about credibility and how attention to the rules of language encourages clarity in thought and expression. One student pointed out that my reader’s argument might have been more convincing if it had been better written.
With this debate in mind, I offer my top 10 reasons for using proper grammar:
1. Grammatical errors are distracting.
2. Grammatical errors interfere with clarity.
3. Although exceptions abound, there is a correlation between seniority and literacy.
4. Just as “Loose lips sink ships,” according to the World War II poster, gruesome grammar hurts happiness.
5. People who don’t like you will point out your errors to attack you and undermine your position.
6. “Bad writing makes bright people look dumb,” as William Zinsser once observed so succinctly.
7. Too many little errors will make you seem careless, sloppy and slovenly.
8. A single big error, such as writing, “My principle concern is …” when it should be “My principal concern is …” will make readers (a least some readers) think you don’t know what you’re talking about.
9. Errors annoy people, as I annoyed Paula in my last column when I wrongly questioned the use of “secrete” in this sentence: “The offenders range from international banks to small-town mortgage lenders, which together helped secrete more than 10,000 U.S.-related accounts holding more than $10 billion.” (Paula wrote: “I grabbed my trusty Oxford dictionary and there it was as a secondary definition of secrete: ‘conceal, put into hiding.’ I’m used to people who think they’re smarter than everyone else and often show their ignorance by not verifying their facts before blasting others. But for you to join in the bashing on this common of a word was troubling.”)
10. Good grammar will make people want to go out with you, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, as it made Katy von Kühn want to go out with her future husband, Sam, when she saw his posting on a dating site: “The whole reason I responded to Sam was the way he formulated his e-mail.”
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.