by Sarah Warlick, copywriter and editor
We at bbr marketing are sticklers for good grammar, and we advocate for this underemphasized area of competency on a regular basis.
That makes sense for a company in the business of marketing and public relations, but we’re not the only people who notice the relative levels of grammatical correctness all around us. We were thrilled to see an article in the Harvard Business Review admitting to a zero tolerance policy for grammar errors by the owner of a company in an entirely unrelated field. You see, using good grammar isn’t just a geeky nicety for nerds with English degrees.
In an age of social media, online business profiles and virtual communications, the written word represents an enormous majority of your public presence. Whether you care one whit about grammar, punctuation and spelling or not, you are being judged on your ability to understand and follow the accepted laws of the language. It’s true that language is a living, changing entity with areas of disagreement and shifting rules, but these make up only a tiny fraction of the standards for correct use. Overall, it’s one of the least ambiguous aspects of modern life. It’s either wrong or right, unless you’re an English professor or an editor who debates the finer points of transitional usage patterns.
But is this fair? Should professional services providers, who have specialized skills and advanced education in areas other than writing, be held to the same standards for grammar and punctuation? How do they even relate to your worth as a service provider or employee? Yes it’s fair, and basing your opinion of any professional on grammar makes sense for more reasons than you may have considered:
Good grammar lends credibility. Without any personal history to back you up yet with the people who meet you or your firm online, your words are all that represent you. Facebook posts and tweets aren’t sonnets. They don’t have to be, either, but if they’re full of basic errors like misusing to/too, they’re/their/there or here/hear then you’re saying you can’t keep up with the world’s eighth graders. That’s not the way to make a good impression. Online acquaintances can’t see your lovely eye contact, feel your firm handshake or intuit your stellar scores on the rigorous examinations your field demands. Your words stand for both you and your firm until further information is available, so it’s critical to make them adhere to basic grammatical standards.
Grammar indicates attention to detail. Grammar isn’t rocket science. It was taught to everyone year after year, and if you can’t quite remember the fundamentals it’s ridiculously easy to perform a quick online check of anything you’re unsure about. With this being the case, egregious grammar errors effectively convey a lack of interest in bothering to get it right. I’m willing to bet that your resume includes the ubiquitous buzz phrase “detail-oriented.” Failure to note subject-verb agreement or which homophone the sentence calls for translates directly to an inability or unwillingness to pay attention to all the other mundane details of life and work. Is that really something you’re comfortable sharing as an attorney, accountant or engineer?
Grammar shows learning ability. If you want to be taken seriously as a professional, you need to show that you can master new skills and recall needed information. People who can’t or won’t learn grammar rules, however, don’t inspire a lot of confidence in their intellectual capacities. Nobody expects to hire professionals exclusively from a pool of people who can list all the Latin declensions and explain the proper use of the subjunctive at the drop of a hat, but limiting your service providers to those who can spot the difference in ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ seems like a reasonable precaution. If you don’t relish studying the more subtle nuances of grammar that’s fine, but be aware that displaying a less than middle school-level mastery of your native language could possibly result in the assumption that you’re…well…a little slow.
Grammar can make or break the impression you give as a competent professional and a desirable employee. Love it or hate it, you’ve got to comply with the standards or risk dire consequences. Death, taxes and grammar: none are optional.