Is Grammar Dead – Or Deadly?

In a recent New York Times piece decrying the practice, John McWhorter, author, blogger, and contributing editor states, “We cannot help associating ‘bad’ grammar with low intelligence, sloppiness and lack of refinement.”

This criterion, he notes, makes it “…increasingly challenging to find work providing a living wage or upward mobility, much less satisfaction,” for people lacking these skills. While acknowledging that this is the case, McWhorter questions barring someone from a decent job “…because he or she isn’t always clear on the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re.’”

Nor does this seem to be a situation limited to the United States. Commenting on “the debate around grammar,” a French scientist said, “I personally don’t hire people whose resumes and letters are full of…mistakes, for two reasons. First, I know I will need to rewrite everything they do…which is a huge waste of time. Second, I consider that someone who is sloppy enough not to check…before they send a resume…is not to be trusted to do serious, precise scientific work.

“What they don’t see is that a scientist who cannot share his/her work with colleagues and the outside world is useless.”

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Your Company is Only as Good as Your Writing,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, and founder of Dozuki software company, said, “In my experience, the practice of good, collaborative writing makes the difference between great business and bad business – a sale or no sale.”

In a second Harvard Business Review post, “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” Wiens continues, “Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies…takes a mandatory grammar test.”

Wiens has found that “…people who make fewer mistakes on the grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing – like stocking shelves or labeling parts.

“In the same vein, programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code.…Grammar is my litmus test.

“Grammar is relevant for all companies,” Wiens said, noting that even though language is constantly changing, grammar remains important. “Good grammar is credibility, especially on the Internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in emails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence.…People judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.”

The Discovery Channel agrees that technology, with its “shorthand,” seems to have grammar, spelling, and punctuation on the run. The popular media as well. All you have to do is listen to the evening news, a sporting event, or a personality to prove the point.

So, are the traditional conventions of written language – grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage – still relevant in today’s world? How important depends on what you are trying to achieve, and with whom. A friendly note to keep up with the doings of family and friends may certainly be more relaxed. After all, the point is just to let them know you care about them, and to exchange news.

But in the business situation, your writing, your correct use of the language, can make a critical difference to your future.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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