Conjunction Junction
Personal Brands

Does Grammar Matter?

March 26, 2009

Oh, boy. If you know me, you’re probably amused by the title of this post. A former English teacher, raised in a house where a slipped “between you and I” was never allowed to slide, and now paid to communicate effectively for others, I safely qualify as a grammar-obsessive. Of course, it makes sense that I’m that way-it is, after all, my job to care about grammar. But even I, the grammar-policing, eagle-eyed writer and editor, sometimes miss things. And my latest obsession, the Times grammar blog After Deadline, can make me feel downright careless about grammar. (The weekly quizzes are guaranteed to try even the most nit-picking grammarian.)

So what about everyone else? If even the experts struggle with commas, modifiers, and the occasional tense issue, is it really fair to expect everyone to measure up grammatically? Probably not, but if you’ve learned anything about life so far, you’ll know that fairness and reality don’t always go hand in hand.

The truth is that bad grammar in any sort of professional capacity reflects badly on the brand-your personal brand and your company brand. Okay, the real truth is that 90% (a totally random number, I admit, but my guess is it’s pretty high) of your audience-clients, customers, prospects-won’t notice or care about grammar mistakes. But when it comes to the other 10%, watch out.

This 10% aren’t necessarily of one mind: Some are those self-righteous, smug grammar-correcting types who look for any opportunity to kick a poor grammar-oblivious slob when he’s down, others are just quietly judging you, some are distracted by an obvious error, and sometimes people are genuinely confused by your lack of clarity (odds are good that if this is the case, you’ll sweep a good portion of that otherwise-indifferent 90% into the mix). But cause isn’t really the issue here-the real problem is the effect.

Regardless of why your grammar mistakes get noticed, the real issue is that you have managed to distract your target audience from the message you actually want to communicate. While you were passionately trying to convey an important concept, you managed to open the door for your listener or reader to start thinking about other things. This can be everything from the nature of the error to “Do I really want this person representing my company?” or “How expert can this company be? They can’t even string together a proper sentence.”

Not good.

So what’s the fix? Well, I could offer a list of common grammar mistakes, but those might not be much help-common grammar mistakes aren’t necessarily your grammar mistakes.

Instead I’d say that first and foremost you should probably start taking grammar-and writing-seriously. You likely have an accountant who handles your company finances, so why would you have a marketing associate write copy for your website? With traditional media laying off people right and left, there’s a glut of good, grammar-aware writers out there now looking to ply their trade-think about hiring one of them to write the words that publicly represent your company. At the very least make an investment in a good editor, who can look for grammar errors, tweak style, and generally bring a professional flow to your writing.

What else? Pay attention to good speaking and writing. The more you read well-written books and articles or listen to eloquent speakers, the more you start to notice the way words work together to their best effect.

Finally, if someone does happen to correct your grammar, don’t react with a knee-jerk defensive dismissal. (Though you should feel free to make that person feel like a jerk for correcting you. Because unsolicited grammar correction is pretty jerky.) At least stop to think about it. It’s never too late to learn the difference between “lay” and “lie” or the simple rules for “if” clauses (a conditional can’t be dependent on another conditional!).

And when you do finally become a grammar master, just remember: resist the urge to become the jerk who corrects other people’s grammar.

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