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.

  • thebaldbiker

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

    • belllindsay

      @thebaldbiker Ha! Love it!! 😀 @SpinSucks

  • 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.

    • @jasonkonopinski I have a few like that, as well. I had a client early on in my career who hated “utilize.” He would say, “Oh you’re so fancy pants with that college degree you can’t just say use?” Now I cringe when I see someone use the word utilize.

      • @ginidietrich  @jasonkonopinski My current hate word is “ubiquitous.”

    • @jasonkonopinski Bah. I’m still ignoring your rule about semicolons.

  • 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:

    • @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!

        • @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.

      • @barrettrossie lol!
        Might been trying a bit too hard on that one… 🙂

  • AnneReuss

    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!

    • @AnneReuss Reading is the very best way to improve your writing. Period.

  • LoweyWard

    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.

    • @LoweyWard Yeah the old autocorrect kills me sometimes. I think, “Who the heck programmed this?”

  • AnneReuss

    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)

    • @AnneReuss Thank you for the British accent! And I agree. You can write informally and still use proper grammar. It’s not that hard.

  • wiredsoup

    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.

  • 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?

    • @TonyBennett *shakes fist*

    • @TonyBennett OMG

      • HowieG

        @ginidietrich  @TonyBennett @jasonkonopinski who needs grammar we can just sit back and let Siri handle everything

  • 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).

    • I use … to bridge my thought gaps WAY too often 🙂 And autocorrect really messes stuff up, too!

    • @allenmireles I often overuse an elipses like @TonyBennett . I kind of love it.

      • HowieG

        @ginidietrich  @allenmireles  @TonyBennett wherever I go Allen is causing trouble. And if she hangs with Tony you know the cops always get called at some point for a ‘disturbance nearby’

    • @allenmireles Parentheses, dashes, ellipses, and semicolons are art forms. That is all.

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

  • 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?

    • @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.

  • ginidietrich

    @amberbluemedia Jeez! You get lots of RTs!

  • ginidietrich

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

  • ginidietrich

    @Books4Branding LOL!!

  • samfiorella

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

  • samfiorella

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

    • lttlewys

      @samfiorella Sheeesh!! Poor grammar again?? Good thing you have @AlisonWordsmith @ginidietrich to keep you on your game!!

      • samfiorella

        @lttlewys I know. @AlisonWordsmith has been beating me with a stick everytime I put punctuation outside of quotations! @ginidietrich

        • lttlewys

          @samfiorella Well, DUH! Where do you think @AlisonWordsmith got that stick!! *smirk* Sent her mine!! @ginidietrich

        • AlisonWordsmith

          @samfiorella @lttlewys And it’s every time, not everytime. Just sayin’… @ginidietrich

  • Pingback: Marketing Day: November 28, 2012()

  • HowieG

    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

    • @HowieG Penalties are in full force for saying “pee-can” in Texas. I thought you should know in case you ever visit.

  • lynnie the pooh

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

    • @lynnie the pooh Oh I don’t know that one. Thanks for the info!

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

    • @RebeccaTodd Funny. I mentioned the text language in a recent post.

    • @RebeccaTodd I like the text slang in casual conversation (I think it’s hilarious to say LOL) is fine, but not when you’re writing for business. You will see it in a blog post from me every once in a while, but I use it to create emphasis.

  • Pingback: Do You Want to Rock the Blogosphere? (Then Proudly Display Your Killer Swag) #1 In a Series()

  • 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.

    • @barrettrossie  Wow! Thanks, Barrett.

      • @Erin F. Well deserved, my dear.

        • @barrettrossie I need a grammar topic for next week or the following one. Want to weigh in with an idea?

    • @barrettrossie  Ha! I needed sleep so badly. I finally got some last night. Very happy not to repeat my Norway sleepless week.
      I agree with both of your recommendations. Thank you!

  • ErinMFeldman

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

  • AmeenaFalchetto1

    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!

    • @AmeenaFalchetto1 Ha! Maybe so. But I listened pretty carefully. They just seem to speak more gracefully than Americans.

      • AmeenaFalchetto1

        @ginidietrich I do have to admit that American English is difficult to understand at times. There are phrases that sound so bizarre. Oh, and let’s not get into the spelling mistakes/differences.

        • @AmeenaFalchetto1 It’s really, really bad. I think we’re just inherently lazy (and arrogant) as a culture.

  • ginidietrich

    @secretsushi Where in the world is Adam?

    • SarahRobinson

      @ginidietrich Isn’t it like the middle of the night where you are???

      • ginidietrich

        @SarahRobinson No! It’s 6 p.m. I’m only 4,000 miles away. Not on the other side of the world.

        • SarahRobinson

          @ginidietrich I thought amsterdam was further than that…..Have you eaten Reistaffle yet? TUMMY!!

        • ginidietrich

          @SarahRobinson Not yet!

        • ariherzog

          @ginidietrich What brings you to Amsterdam? See Anne Frank yet?

    • secretsushi

      @ginidietrich still abroad, but NOT a broad.

    • secretsushi

      @ginidietrich where are you?

      • ginidietrich

        @secretsushi I am in Amsterdam!

        • secretsushi

          @ginidietrich whatcha doin there? You’re not too far, but not too close.

  • Pingback: WEBHUCKSTERGROUP.COM » Marketing Day: November 28, 2012()

  • 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!

    • @wgmccoll And speaking of badly, the adverb is a long, lost art.

  • AlyssaColton1

    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

      @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.

      • @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.

  • 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 😀

    • @ColleenConger THAT is a fantastic story! I cannot believe a school had that kind of typo in it. Oy. But I LOVE that you got business from correcting the mistake.

  • businessprep

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

  • Pingback: Why Your Editor is Your Friend by @belllindsay | Spin Sucks()

  • Pingback: How to Write a Business Book Without Losing Your Soul by @stickybranding Spin Sucks()

  • tishtosh

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

  • tishtosh

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