Grammar pedants: you’re helping less than you think

It seems to happen at least once a week. Usually it’s in my Twitter feed or on Facebook. Occasionally it’s on LinkedIn. Regardless, I rarely make it through to Friday without someone promoting a post on embarrassing grammar mistakes.

‘Seven grammar gaffes that could ruin your career,’ screams one. ‘Thirty grammar mistakes writers should avoid,’ warns another. Given what we do here, you’d think I’d be all in favour of these. After all, isn’t that what we’re all about?

Grammar matters

Well, yes and no. Of course, grammar matters. You need to get it right to make sure you’re saying what you think you’re saying. And getting it badly wrong can undermine your credibility in the eyes of the person you’re writing to.

But, as I said in this post, it’s no more than a hygiene factor. You need to have something worth saying in the first place, and you still need to write a well-structured, interesting document. Focusing on grammar first and foremost runs the risk that you will produce a technically perfect document that no-one will read.

There are two things wrong with posts about ‘career-killing’ grammar mistakes. First, they instil yet more terror in people who may already be near paralysed by writer’s block. Second, the ‘mistakes’ they highlight are often not mistakes at all but mere style differences.

Moving on

Take this example (from PRdaily.com):

Incorrect: Everyone should bring their notebook to this meeting.
Correct: Everyone should bring his or her notebook to this meeting.
 

Not so. Language moves on, as does society. These days, gender-biased language (defaulting to him/his/he) is seen as less acceptable than it once was. But repeatedly using the neutral but clunky ‘his or her’ and ‘he or she’ is distracting. In my view, it’s a lot more distracting than the lack of grammatical agreement between ‘everyone’ (technically singular) and ‘their’ (which normally refers to plurals). As a result, using ‘their’ or ‘they’ instead is gaining acceptance in some pretty high places.

This makes sense. Rather that than slip back into gender-biased language, which is the likely consequence of avoiding the clumsy ‘his or her’.

Then there’s this, from no less than author/blogger-royalty Guy Kawasaki:

He lists 11 ‘gaffes’, but at least nine of them are style points and not errors at all. They include writing in the passive voice, omitting the serial (Oxford) comma and using two spaces after a full stop. You can argue about the merits of each of these. (We do and have.) But none of them is technically wrong.

Good intentions

I’m sure the authors of such posts are trying to be helpful (though there are doubtless those who do it just to elevate their position and appear clever). But I also think it’s no coincidence that this topic features heavily on extremely popular blog sites that need to generate very high levels of web traffic. It’s become an internet evergreen, guaranteed to produce thousands of clicks, likes and shares. And it does so by playing on the fears of those who lack confidence in their ability to communicate in writing.

Lest you think I’ve gone mad, I’ll repeat the essential caveat: grammar and punctuation mistakes do matter. Not only can they cause confusion and undermine credibility, sometimes they change the meaning of a sentence completely.

But there is far more to effective writing than following often outmoded ‘rules’.

Image credit: Shot Dead In The Head

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