Today’s topic is why grammar matters.
One thing people said they wanted to hear more about in my print book is why grammar matters. I didn’t think any of you would need convincing, but maybe you’re looking for arguments to defend yourself against the people who say it doesn’t matter.
In any event, I’ve invited Martha Brockenbrough, author of the new book “Things That Make Us [Sic],” to make the case for good grammar. She’s also a grammar columnist for MSN’s Encarta and the founder of SPOGG—the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. Who couldn’t love an organization with an acronym like SPOGG?
Is Proper Grammar Important?
Now, Martha writes,
Does it bother you when someone says, “Between you and I“?
Does your lip twitch ever so slightly when someone uses an apostrophe to make a plural?
And does a teeny-tiny part of your soul shrivel when Neil Diamond sings, “song she sang to me, song she brang to me”?
If that’s the case, you are not alone—even if it sometimes feels that way.
Every day, people like us see and hear errors that needn’t be made: in pop songs and movie titles, in television newscasts and movie dialogues.
It’s an ongoing assault to the senses, and let’s face it—it can feel pretty darned depressing to those of us who care about language, who love it, and who try to use it as well as we can.
Try not to lose heart, though. While it might be stylish in certain quarters to ignore the rules of standard usage, grammar matters elsewhere.
It matters a lot.
1. Getting a Job
It matters, for example, when you’re applying for a job. In one survey of hiring managers, 75 percent said it was worse for an applicant to have a spelling or grammar error on his application than for him to show up late or—get this—swear during an interview. Holy bleep.
2. Keeping a Job
It continues to matter when you’ve landed that job. Remember the fictional TV lawyer Ed? He lost his job in a Manhattan law firm because of a misplaced comma in a contract. Just in case you think this sort of thing only happens on TV, think again. A utility company in Canada had to pay an extra $2.13 million in 2006 to lease power poles because someone stuck a comma in the wrong spot.
3. Staying Out of Jail
Grammar matters even if you have an illegal job. A bank robber once got nabbed, in part, because he spelled “money” M-U-N-Y. The bank teller realized the man was such an idiot, he could be tricked into robbing the bank across the street—where police summoned by the teller were waiting.
And get this: A woman who killed her husband and then wrote notes to the police was caught in part because of her tendency to misuse dashes and quotation marks. All police had to do was compare her regular correspondence to the anonymous taunts sent to the police and they had a powerful piece of evidence against her.
4. Finding Love
Grammar also matters if you’re looking for love. Raise your hand if you’d want to go out with someone whose personal ad contains spelling and grammar errors. That’s right. It’s a turnoff. It’s the equivalent of having spinach in your teeth or having the zipper on your jeans undone.
5. Understanding Appropriateness
Speaking of jeans, grammar and clothing have a lot in common.
Let’s say you see a man in a Speedo. Are you at the beach? Let’s hope so. If he’s wearing a Speedo on public transportation, the man’s probably a lunatic. At the very least, you don’t want to sit next to him on the bus.
In just the same way, using the wrong kind of language in the wrong place can send some pretty nutty messages.
Let’s say you sent your company president e-mail and you used the number 2 as shorthand for “to.” Essentially, you’re saying, “I don’t need that raise this year after all. In fact, I might not really even need this job.”
That doesn’t mean you can never use shortcuts like this. Even though people who love grammar are less likely to do so, it’s fine to save your thumbs when you’re texting. It’s all about context.
You don’t wear a Speedo or other super-abbreviated forms of pants on the bus. Likewise, you don’t use really abbreviated language where it doesn’t belong.
Of course, you know this already, you with your pants carefully zipped, you with your shirt covering your navel.
6. Getting and Giving Respect
You know that being grammatical isn’t just about following the rules like some sort of robot. It’s about paying attention to context. It’s using language that’s most likely to be understood. It’s about sending a message that will be met with respect, just as it shows respect.
So thank you for caring—and good luck out there.
And, you can get Martha’s book anywhere fine books are sold. It’s called “Things That Make Us Sic” [s-i-c] and contains Martha’s funny letters correcting famous people and companies, photos of grammar errors, and many examples of Martha’s fun approach to language.
I’m Mignon Fogarty, and I’ll end with a quick reminder for you to actually subscribe to this podcast, especially if you use iTunes, if you haven’t already. While you’re at it, make sure you sign up for my free weekly newsletter to get exclusive tips and bonus material.