It’s not easy being a grammarian these days.
People are sometimes wary of interacting with me. I think they think I keep some sort of file on how well they speak or write (“Tuesday. 9:55 a.m. John uses the subjunctive incorrectly and omits the hyphen in a compound modifier.”) I get that — no one wants to feel constantly judged or afraid to pipe up because they might make a mistake. These people might be surprised to learn that I don’t have “The Elements of Style” memorized (not all of it, anyway), and I make mistakes, too. And sometimes, I can’t tell you exactly why something is wrong, I can only tell you that it is wrong, à la Joan Didion when she wrote, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.”
Then there’s the backlash that comes from those with poor and excellent language skills alike, the notion that my appreciation for good grammar is rooted in authoritarianism or a need to feel superior — that at best I’m an uptight slave to the machine and at worst, a judgmental snob worthy of the same contempt I allegedly hold others in.
For the record: With the exception of my kids, I would never correct someone’s grammar. It’s rude and pretentious and potentially belittling. And I’ve been known to change my stance on grammar matters as the case warrants — I’ve even ditched the rules every now and then. However, I do make judgments about you based on your grammar. Most of us do; it’s involuntary.
When it comes to matters of grammar, we’ve broken out into three camps:
Purists. Known as “prescriptivists” in linguistics circles, these people know and appreciate (sometimes to a fault) the rules of grammar. The purist believes definite rules govern correct usage and failure to follow these rules renders the content in question wrong. These are the ones you go to when you’re not sure if it should be “who” or “whom.” Purists have a tendency to believe that poor grammar heralds the fall of civilization.
Rebels. Aka “descriptivists,” these well-intentioned folks are more concerned with how people use language than the alleged rules that govern it. They are far too hip and enlightened to be caught up in all your pesky rules — grammar belongs to the people, and as such, common usage reigns supreme. These folks are fond of using words like “normative” in a sentence whenever possible.
Don’t-know-don’t-care. This one should be self-explanatory, but what the heck: For whatever reason, these people don’t know the rules of grammar or can’t keep them straight, and they don’t understand the big deal, either. You’ll find these people rolling their eyes often and adding, “What’s the big deal? You know what I meant.”
What is the big deal? So glad you asked. Let’s get to it.
Good grammar is a brand ambassador
It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about your personal brand or your business brand — your grammar, spelling and punctuation represents you in the world. It sends the reader a message about your authority and attention to detail. It’s a trust signal; it says, I do good work. You can feel safe hiring me/buying from me/retaining my services.
Conversely, poor grammar harms your credibility and makes you look careless. In fact, four in 10 job applications are rejected due to poor grammar and spelling, according to the global communication skills company Communicaid. People are going to make judgments on your competence and intelligence based on your grammar, whether they realize it or not — and regardless of whether you think it’s OK for them to do so. Right or wrong, bad grammar hurts your bottom line.
It comes down to this: Anything great is error-free. Period.
Good grammar helps you communicate clearly and get what you want
Grammar is the groundwork of clear communication. “The better the grammar, the clearer the message, the more likelihood of understanding the message’s intent and meaning,” author William Bradshaw wrote in this Huffington Post article.
And isn’t that why you’re creating content, regardless if it’s a resumé or a blog post or a billboard —aren’t you trying to communicate? We’ve all seen the “Let’s eat Grandma!” and “Stop clubbing baby seals” memes — and sure, they’re getting kind of annoying — but the point remains the same: Good grammar makes content easier to read and understand. Screw this up and you screw up your message. If I constantly have to translate your poorly written sentences into what I think you meant, well I have a lot of latitude to get your intent wrong, don’t I?
People don’t have time to try to figure out what you mean. If you’re not clear, they’ll move on to the guy who is.
Language is beautiful and powerful and worthy of respect
Humanity, for all its flaws and weaknesses, is a beautiful thing. Who has never been moved to tears by a kind gesture? Who has not gazed in wonder at a starlit night? What’s it all about, anyway — this living and dying, these 70-odd years we spend trying to figure out me and you and babies and war and love and heartbreak?
Language is the tool with which we try to make sense of it all. It’s how we describe and report on ourselves, the world and our reality. We use it to discern truth, woo partners, topple governments and make peace with our souls. And as such, it deserves our respect. Good grammar honors the power and beauty of words.