DISCLAIMER: I did not run this post through the AP Style Book’s Grammar Editor and my blog editor doesn’t have spell-check. I still read it a second time to make sure I crossed my t’s and dotted my i’s. I’m old-fashioned like that.
My spouse, who often goes by the self-annointed nickname “Conan the Grammarian”, forwarded this little gem to me this morning - Good Grammar Is Old Fashioned, Unecessary and Bad For Your Career. Leaving aside omission of the serial comma, I have a few nits to pick with this statement.
First, let’s talk about the author. Penelope Trunk’s bio reads as follows:
Penelope Trunk is the founder of three startups, most recently Brazen Careerist, a professional social network for young people. Previously she worked in marketing at Fortune 500 companies including Mattel and Hyundai. Her blog about career advice, blog.penelopetrunk.com, receives half a million visits a month and is syndicated in more than 200 newspapers. She frequently appears as a workplace commentator on CNN, 20/20 and FOX News. She’s also the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, a bestselling career advice book for Generation Y.
Ms. Trunk “advertises” her blog post with the blurb:
The cost of perfect grammar — even spelling — is just too high. Learn to live with sloppiness. It just might help your career.
Next, I moved on to the post :
Why do so many people care about grammar and spelling? Seriously. There is very little in this world that warrants text-based perfection. Are you writing the copy for a billboard in Times Square that is only three words? Don’t have a typo.
Let’s see. The second sentence is incomplete. In fact, it is an adverb. An adverb that means in a serious manner, to an alarmingly grave extent, or with genuine, earnest intent. But what in a serious manner, to an alarmingly grave extent or with genuine earnest intent? Adverbs are modifiers and I cannot tell from this single adverb sentence exactly what seriously is modifying here. When someone asks me to take something seriously, then I really need to know to what I am supposed to accord the weight. Is it the question that precedes the statement? Is it the sentence that follows? I can’t tell, so I think I will skip right over the seriously. It is seriously lacking in the action and object vital to conveying the point.
Not content to impress upon us that brevity is our friend with the single adverb sentence, Ms. Trunk then uses an even more nuclear tool, the single adverb paragraph. It is a complete sentence in that it is followed by a period and an ellipses. Lawyers are very familiar with the ellipses: we regularly quote from cases, statutes, and authorities, while attempting to fit within space constraints. In formal writing, ellipses are used to show places where words have been omitted from a quote. Where the omission is within a sentence, the reader will see three dots. Where the omission is at the end of a sentence, the reader will see a period in the normal place, followed by three dots. So, according to general understanding, “Otherwise….” is a complete sentence and, in this case, a complete paragraph.
For the record, otherwise means under other circumstances, in another manner, in other respects. The implication is that, when you use “otherwise”, you will then find out what should happen in those other circumstances, manners, or respects.
In informal text, ellipses, which should be used sparingly, also can be employed to show uncertainty or a trailing off of the writer’s train of thought. I am guessing that is what Trunk is trying to do here. Functionally, she is making a point in her first paragraph about how outdated grammar is, but then suggests that she is faltering in her resolve with her uncertain “devil’s advocate” “otherwise….” standing alone in its own, tiny paragraph. Her point would have been much sharper if she made the “Times Square” statement the first sentence of the next paragraph, started the next sentence with “otherwise,” and then finished that sentence, explaining that “in other contexts, good grammar and punctuation is unecessary and potentially harmful.”
What is she trying to say here? I don’t know with certainty. There is too much ambiguity arising out of her use of these terms and placement of the paragraph breaks for me to fully fathom her message. Presumably, in her first “two” paragraphs, Ms. Trunk believes that grammer is important for the three-word billboard in Times Square, but nowhere else. Especially not in blog posts attempting to make a point about the futility of grammar.
Is this true, lawyers? What about in drafting legislation? What about in writing a brief to be filed with a court? How about in a legally-binding agreement?
I clicked on a few links in her post to glean a greater understanding of her message. I believe her underlying point is that writing with rhythm and cadence is far more important than writing with clarity. And, by clarity, I mean following certain basic rules regarding grammar and usage so that the import of the message is not lost in creative innovation. How about in venues that depend heavily on that clarity.
She also seems to be saying that our limited energy should be spent writing, and not worrying about grammar. But that really does depend upon the audience and your purpose, doesn’t it? If you can attend to both your content and your structure, why wouldn’t you?
Ms. Trunk also believes that the real reason that people note grammar is to help them separate the well-educated from the riff-raff. She seems to believe that grammar rules are a snob’s best friend. Where has Ms. Trunk been hanging out?
Here is my take on grammar and usage. Examine your purpose and know your audience. Tailor your “perfectionism” to the setting. I concede that word choice and the grammar rules themselves are not black and white – take a look on the internet to see the disputes that abound concerning use of contractions and splitting infinitives. Nonetheless. whether Ms. Trunk likes it or not, bad grammar in almost any context muddies up the message and can even actively distract from it. There are many fora in which creative “rule-breaking” is permitted and even encouraged, but business writing is not one of them. In law, a mispelled word or misplaced punctuation mark can mean the difference between yes and no.
At its very core, language is a communication tool. We speak and write to ensure our message is heard. The grammar rules are meant to give us a framework upon which to lay our word choices, to encourage a foundation enabling us to reduce the guesswork that would prevail if there were no rules.
Do you remember that famous scene in the movie Airplane, when Barbara Billingsly steps forward to tell the flight attendent, I mean stewardess (see, I can accept change): “Oh Stewardess, I speak Jive”? Have you ever tried to “understand” the lyrics in a rap song? Don’t get me wrong here, people. I love rap music. But I believe that the deviations in the language used in rap music or within other groups often may be intentionally difficult to parse chiefly due to the singer’s or speaker’s desire to target his message to that particular audience, and not to the larger group. What if you need to reach the larger group? Does rap work in that context? While there are those few examples of judges taking liberties with the language in their decisions, I know that I would not risk a client’s cause with taking those same liberties in a brief or contract.
I believe that, in order to use language to best effect, the writer should be mindful of both the rules of grammar and the meanings of words. Without a working understanding of both, the writer may be incapable of communicating his message to his audience. The code is there to help reduce misunderstandings. You can certainly break those rules, but you risk losing the message in the murk. Your gamble, I suppose.
I think it is easy for someone like Ms. Trunk to flaunt the rules of grammar with wild abandon: she is well-educated and knows the rules well enough to break them. But what about someone who is unwittingly or unknowingly breaking those rules? If language and grammar are not important, then why would Ms. Trunk suggest that it is a good idea to hire someone to help you write your resume?