Gini Dietrich

Poor Grammar Sucks: Four Resources for Better Writing

By: Gini Dietrich | November 28, 2012 | 

Last night I took an overnight international flight and had all of three hours of sleep. But the sun is rising in the United Kingdom and it’s already Wednesday while most of you are still sleeping away Tuesday.

During the flight, I had an amazing customer experience. I don’t know if it’s because the cabin crew for British Airways is that much better than American flight attendants or if it’s because I kept hearing “Ms. Dietrich” in that beautiful British accent. Maybe it was both.

And now, as I await my flight to Amsterdam from Heathrow, I am eavesdropping on conversations, that accent lilting into my ears like a Chopin concerto.

As the British speak to one another – and to me – I’ve noticed something really interesting: Their grammar is immaculate.

How is it Americans have become so lazy when we speak and write? We can’t blame it on texting; the Brits also text. Perhaps it’s just a cultural thing.

Poor Grammar Sucks

As I ponder this question, I’m reminded of an article written by iFixit CEO, Kyle Wiens. Titled, “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar,” it describes why he won’t hire anyone who “doesn’t know the difference between to and too.”

Of course, it makes sense. iFixit writes repair manuals so his people need to be good writers. Like Wiens, we won’t hire anyone who can’t write well. And, although everyone here writes very well, they are put through an intense editing process that makes them even better. Ask Yvette Pistorio how she, after working with us for several months, now feels about passive voice, prepositions, and punctuation.

But what about the rest of the business world?

Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, thinks anyone with poor grammar, “deserves to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave.”

While that might be going a little bit too far, it is time for every, single person who communicates via the written word in the business world to figure out the difference between there, their, and they’re.

The thing is, good grammar adds credibility, especially on the web. If you type “your” when you mean “you’re,” you lose instant credibility with your fans, followers, connections, clients, prospects, employees, and your mom. You’d better hope your ninth grade English teacher doesn’t follow you or your death might be imminent.

There are lots and lots of resources to help you, if you’ve forgotten your high school English. Truss’s book is the best; it belongs in every office in the world. You can also subscribe to Grammar Girl, buy yourself an AP Stylebook (or subscribe online), or buy the Guide to Better Business Writing from Harvard Business Review.

Now I leave it to you. What grammar tips do you have?

Thanks to Jeffrey Hill for the image.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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92 responses to “Poor Grammar Sucks: Four Resources for Better Writing”

  1. thebaldbiker says:

    @belllindsay @SpinSucks Grammar is the difference between having your name on the building or having your name on your shirt.

  2. One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite authors sums it up for me:
    “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” 
    There are few things that whip me into a frenzy faster than sloppy writing, especially from those who call themselves “communications professionals”. Yes, typos happen – but when it becomes habitual, I quit reading their content. If you’re publishing to the web for public consumption, copyedit. Full stop.

  3. Oh, this a scary subject for me. I blog and stuff, but I also happen to have a degree in linguistics, meaning I know grammar for the Nordic languages pretty well. So I would agree with Lynne Truss on her rather graphic vision of poor-grammar-punishments.
    But unfortunately for me, and often times for any native speakers reading my blog, English just isn’t my first language. I could go back to writing in Swedish of course, but that would exclude me from most of the blog community in my niche.
    I could play it safe when writing in English, but I kind of don’t want to always take the easy road when writing. I could also have some of my American or English friends help me with some proofreading, but if I go through too much hassle with it, the fun part of blogging just goes away.
    The only medicine I’ve found so far is to keep writing in English, no matter what. And to swallow my linguistic pride. That last part is a constantly humbling experience for a language besserwisser like myself, but at least it gives me a bit more understanding of what it is to struggle with grammar.

    • @Jerry Silfwer I love that linguists are taking up shop here. *swoon*

    • 🙂
      I should say I blog about digital media and not linguistics in English. I’m fearless but not crazy, lol!

      • @Jerry Silfwer Likewise! I enjoy taking a linguistics approach to digital media from time to time. In fact, that’s exactly what my last guest post here covered, if you’re interested:

    • ginidietrich says:

      @Jerry Silfwer I have never known you to inappropriately use English grammar on your blog. I think there is a big difference between being ignorant about grammar and not knowing the proper translation.

      • @ginidietrich That’s encouraging, Gini! And true, I got the simple stuff down like the difference between too and to, their and they’re and stuff like that. But I find it extremely difficult to press “publish” sometimes when I can’t detect whether what I’ve written sounds outlandish or not. When I lived in NYC, my colleagues thought I spoke and wrote well, but every day I managed to direct translate strange Swedish idioms which apparently was very amusing! 🙂

        • @ginidietrich My favourite resource by the way is Strunk’s Elements of Style. Have it on my desk now!

        • ginidietrich says:

          @Jerry Silfwer I’m in Amsterdam right now and my hosts were telling me about St. Nicholas’s Eve. When they were describing the servant he disembarks, they translated his name to Black Peter, which they all thought sounded very outlandish and amusing. So I totally get what you’re saying!

    • @Jerry Silfwer , congratulations on posting one of the best-written and grammatically correct four-paragraph comments in the history of Spin Sucks. You “struggle” with style and verve.

  4. AnneReuss says:

    Read physical magazine and books. Which is how I learned as a child (I had to because I was Deaf but it helps everyone). I remind myself to do that at least couple times a month. Plus, it’s easier to get distracted on your computer or tablet!

  5. LoweyWard says:

    The one that always makes me cringe is the misuse of its and it’s. Poor grammar kills credibility and, sadly, we have to remember to fight with technology to make sure what we’re typing is correct.

  6. AnneReuss says:

    If I may add chaps, folks distressed by the notion of depriving themselves from writing in their preferred informal manner must be gently reminded their linguistic character can be preserved.  The only thing to sacrifice is absurd grammar. To type or utter the word ‘they’re’ in replacement of ‘their ‘is simply not proper. Bloody hell! (*insert british accent* in case you missed that)

  7. wiredsoup says:

    Thanks for this article. We’re working on a piece that covers the interesting nuances between written grammar and spoken grammar — inspired by Steven Pinker’s Big Think piece on the evolution of spoken language, and the debate over the existence of an innate universal grammar.
    Can I reference this post? Thanks.

  8. TonyBennett says:

    Much to Jason’s dismay: Ima communications professional that uses colons and used to says that to much. Tony Bennett also talks in the third person to prove his point that he’s also American, its the hip thing too do… He’s also been nominated as linguist of the year by the Linguistic Society of America so that means I’m a really good speaking. 
    Anyone hiring for they’re next speaking engagement?

  9. allenmireles says:

    I once worked for a guy who refused to do business with anyone who had typos in their written communications or misused the rules of grammar. I have never forgotten that. However, I struggle with tangled fingers when it comes to social…often moving so fast I don’t even see the mistakes until afterward. Sigh…
    AND I often overuse parentheses and other forms of punctuation deliberately (in social that is).

  10. Some people mistake style for grammar. The reverse is true as well.

  11. stevenmcoyle says:

    My favorite joke from this year’s election is: “You’re mad at President Obama for not fixing the economy in four years? You’ve been in college for four years and don’t the difference between “your” and “you’re”, “to” and “too,” “its” and “it’s” or “there”, “their” and “they’re.”
    I think somewhere early on, say middle school, the focus on grammar is lost. As students enter high school, they’re forced to learn different “styles” of writing, which takes the focus off grammar. This same issue is repeated in college, MLA vs APA vs AP, etc. They all have different rules. Why isn’t there one standard for writing?

    • ginidietrich says:

      @stevenmcoyle That is hilarious! I didn’t hear that joke. Freaking priceless! And on the standards…when we wrote Marketing in the Round, they wanted us to write in Chicago style. It was hard after all these years of writing AP style.

  12. ginidietrich says:

    @amberbluemedia Jeez! You get lots of RTs!

  13. ginidietrich says:

    @LGM_PR @LouHoffman All these poor people are going to die because of poor grammar!

  14. ginidietrich says:

    @Books4Branding LOL!!

  15. samfiorella says:

    @AlisonWordsmith Heh, well, I know you feel about MY poor grammar! #bizforum

  16. samfiorella says:

    @AlisonWordsmith Heh, well, I know how you feel about MY poor grammar! #bizforum @ginidietrich

  17. […] Poor Grammar Sucks: Four Resources for Better Writing, […]

  18. HowieG says:

    But do you penalize someone who says Pah-Cahn vs Pee-Can?
    I hear they closed the coffee shops to tourists but I am sure I can find you an underground rave club. Let me ask some people.
    Yo Use Guys

  19. lynnie the pooh says:

    My favorite grammar resource is The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein.

  20. RebeccaTodd says:

    Yes this! My only tip is practice good writing and grammar. Don’t use the dreaded text slanguage!

  21. Gini, this would be a great post even if it was written on a full eight hours of sleep.  
    One of my all-time favorite books on writing falls into the category of inspiration rather than resource. It’s “The Writer’s Art” by the late James J. Kilpatrick. He has chapters with names like “How Fares the English Language?” and “The Things We Ought Not To Do.” I couldn’t write like that even if I were just trying to imitate. Fortunately, the book is back in print again, but you can get a used copy practically free through Amazon or Better World Books. 
    I’d also suggest a blog by our pal erinmfeldman — Write Right Words — Sometimes she writes about writing, and other times she just provided a great example by writing well.

  22. ErinMFeldman says:

    @barrettrossie Oh my. This could be a good or bad thing.

  23. AmeenaFalchetto1 says:

    I am wondering if it’s the British accent that blinds you to the grammatical mistakes. I know it can be a saving grace when I’m over your side of the pond!

  24. ginidietrich says:

    @secretsushi Where in the world is Adam?

  25. […] Poor Grammar Sucks: Four Resources for Better Writing, […]

  26. wgmccoll says:

    I always felt the gold standard on this topic is “Strictly Speaking” by the late NBC newsman Edwin Newman.  I read that as a teenager and have never forgotten his railing against the incorrect use of “hopefully” and that when things don’t go your way, you feel bad, not badly!

  27. AlyssaColton1 says:

    My bugaboo is the proper use of apostrophes. It drives me crazy when I see apostrophes used for plurals: “shoe’s on sale”. Yikes!
    I tell my students that sometimes grammar rules change. But in this case, it might cause confused, though unfortunately we (in America at least) seem to be used to it.

    • lynnie the pooh says:

      @AlyssaColton1 I’m with you, Alyssa.  I’m especially dismayed by advertising that uses improper grammar, because that tends to institutionalize the usage.  Can you imagine a company paying its marketing people for some of the horrible grammar we see in ads?  I have to admit, my friends call me “Mrs. Thistlebottom,” because I edit the newspaper as I read it and once sent a book back to its publisher totally blue- pencilled.

      • ginidietrich says:

        @lynnie the pooh  @AlyssaColton1 I ALMOST took a picture of a sign in Amsterdam that said “Hot Dog’s” at a hot dog stand. My caption was going to be, “What are the hot dogs selling?” But then I decided I harp too much on grammar and let it go.

  28. Hail to all of us that believe in good grammar! Being a graphic designer solopreneur, I don’t have an extra pair of eyes to proof my work. To double (and sometimes triple check) my work, I’ve started reading all the text in my designs out loud – sometimes several times (because I’m a little OCD.)  I sincerely believe that doing this activates a different part of my brain and makes me slow down and take notice of how the design will sound to someone reading it to themselves.And here’s a side note story – I recently contacted a billboard company that had a typo on one of their billboards. I’ve have an overactive proofreading gene so when I notice typos, I usually sigh and shrug and go about my day. However, this billboard was advertising how great the local “elementery” school was. Gah! The worst thing was that no one had noticed the typo in over two years! I finally tracked down the billboard company and they promptly corrected the misspelled word. I guess I impressed them somehow because I’m now their lead designer and have been for the past two years 😀

  29. businessprep says:

    RT @samfiorella: Poor Grammar Sucks: Four Resources for Better Writing via @ginidietrich

  30. […] on hundreds of thousands of years of wiring. Nine times out of 10 your brain will ‘see’ your grammar, spelling, or verbiage as correct, even if it isn’t. Your brain already knows what it’s looking for; it […]

  31. tishtosh says:

    ColleenConger “I’ve have an overactive proofreading gene”
    No worries, your proofreading gene appears to be not too overactive. 😉

  32. tishtosh says:

    “I’ve have an overactive proofreading gene”
    No worries, your proofreading gene does not appear to be
    _too_ overactive 😉

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