(Irene passed away on November 4, 2012, but she had much left to say. We will continue to publish the articles she had already written.)
Bad grammar has always been frowned upon by teachers, but nevertheless, millions of people use bad grammar in their speech and their writing, often unaware of how bad their grammar is. While people become more casual in all aspects of their lives, perhaps grammar is the one place where mediocrity and casualness should not be tolerated. Despite opposing views, bad grammar leads to bad results across the board for everyone involved. And for authors, bad grammar can destroy a book's reputation.
Recently, Dictionary.com ran an interesting article titled, “Does Grammar Matter in the Workplace?” The article referred to Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit and founder of Dozuki, who wrote an article called “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar” in the “Harvard Business Review.” Wiens states, “I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writingâ€”like stocking shelves or labeling parts.” In response, John McWhorter argued in a “New York Times” essay that grammar is not indicative of intelligence or attention to detail, and in many professions, is not an essential skill.
While, of course, grammar matters more in jobs related to writing than in other jobs, such as a factory assembly line, I beg to differ that grammar has nothing to do with attention to detail. As a book reviewer, I have seen countless poorly written books in which the grammar is atrocious. I have also seen many of these books completely lacking in any sort of attention to detail.
The world now has countless aspiring authors and over a million books are published every year. If an author is going to compete against all the other authors to make his or her book stand out, having a well-written book with proper grammar, and having it proofread meticulously, is going to make a huge difference.
Believe it or not, even among authors, bad grammar exists. Traditionally published books tend to be better than many self-published books because publishers have editors to fix grammar, spelling, and other errors. But not all publishers, editors, or authors are of the same caliber, regardless of whether the book is traditionally or independently published. And many an intelligent self-published author knows enough to have his book edited and proofread to avoid errors.
I see certain grammatical mistakes being made across the board in books; frequently, I find split infinitives in books produced even by major publishing houses. The best known example of a split infinitive comes from the television show “Star Trek” in its famous opening “to boldly go.” Here, “to go” is the infinitive of the verb, so it should not be split, although people frequently insert adverbs into the infinitive, thereby splitting it). I also frequently see subject-pronoun agreement issues. For example, “Everyone should decide what they want for lunch before they get to the deli counter.” In this case, “everyone” is singular so the pronouns should also be singular. Instead of “they” should be used “he,” “she,” or “he or she.” Or “everyone” should be replaced with a plural word like “people” that will then match with the plural pronoun “they.”
As I said, such errors are frequent even in traditionally published books, and well-educated people still constantly make these errors. Many people who complain about bad grammar won’t even recognize that these examples are bad grammar. I was amused in reading the article at Dictionary.com that among the comments readers madeâ€”both from those who felt grammar does matter in the workplace, and those who didn’t agreeâ€”many were filled with bad grammar, and at least one person pointed this fact out in her comment.
I also disagree with John McWhorter that grammar has nothing to do with being detail-oriented. I’ll expand a bit here from grammar itself to include spelling, pronunciation, and other matters related to writing and communication. I cringe when I see commercials where people use bad grammar; commercials have writers who should know better. Poor pronunciation also causes me to cringe; in one commercial I’ve seen, the business owner tells customers that his product is “guaranteed”â€”only he can’t pronounce “guaranteed.” He thinks the beginning of the word rhymes with “car” rather than “care.” Then a jingle comes on in which the word is pronounced properly. This business has made numerous commercials and every time it is the same “guaranteed” line and the same problem with pronunciation. I am amazed that the television station producing the ad has never told the business owner that he is mispronouncing the word, and I also am amazed that the business owner has never picked up on how the word is pronounced differently in the jingle. Obviously, attention to detail is lacking here. I know a little room for difference in pronunciations exists, so I went online and listened to the word pronounced at four different dictionaries and not one pronounces it the way he does. And even if there are two ways to pronounce it, shouldn’t the pronunciation be consistent in the commercial? Do I want to buy a product from a man who for years has been unaware of how to pronounce a word properly that he uses over and over to promote his business and that he’s heard from other people’s lips dozens of times, and yet he can’t pick up on his mistake? How guaranteed is his product, really?
Such lack of attention to detail is even worse when it’s in a book. Here’s an example of just one of countless books I’ve been given to review where bad grammar and bad writing also reflected lack of attention to detail. First, this particular book was filled with typos and misspellings. One that really irritated me was the author continually referring to how he used to be an “alter boy.” As a good Catholic, he should have known how to spell “altar.” Worse, throughout the book, he couldn’t make up his mind how to do much of anything. Whenever he referred to a book or film, he would have it italicized on one page, then in bold on another page, then underlined on another, then italicized and underlined on a third. In one case, I saw him italicize, bold, and underline all in the same sentence, never catching on that the three mentions of the book did not match. I wonder whether he would paint a fence like thatâ€”black post, green post, some pink stripes, then some blue polka dotsâ€”and not realize it looked terrible when he was done. His book sure looked terrible, and it read horribly. A good author pays attention to the details and makes sure everything is as consistent as possible.
I also know authors who, unbelievably, don’t think good grammar matters. They tell me “That’s why I have an editor.” And I know editors who tell me writers without good grammar are terrible writers, and no matter how hard they, as editors, work, and no matter how great the idea for the book might be, a book can only be improved so much by someone other than the author, and it will never be completely up to par if it were not well-written to begin with.
Whether you are an author, a salesperson, or a factory worker, people do judge you on your use of grammar. If you haven’t seen the movie “My Fair Lady,” it’s worth watching as an example of how grammar can get you ahead or hold you back in life. Perhaps transforming yourself from a flower girl on the street to part of English high society, as Eliza Doolittle does in the film, is rather extreme for your situation, but it does show how people view you based on what comes out of your mouth. And they also judge you on what comes from your pen.
Bad grammar, bad writing, and lack of attention to detail are the primary reasons why self-publishing has had a bad reputation. Perhaps you can get away with bad grammar in the workplace, but you can’t get away with it when you write a book. Trust me; there are readers out there who delight in finding errors and pointing them out just so they can feel superior to authors.
If you are an aspiring writer, I recommend you brush up on your grammar. It wouldn’t hurt to take a class or to read a grammar book. And by all means, find a good editor. But don’t just let your editor fix your grammar; pay attention to what the editor changes and learn from him or her (not them). Good and serious writers pay attention to detail. They notice what their editors change, they learn why, and they do not repeat the same mistakes going forward.
Regardless of what the rest of the world might say about the need for good grammar, an author should be an aspiring expert on grammar and punctuation and be detail-oriented. You may not need to know the name of every part of speech, but you should write and rewrite with a dictionary and a grammar book close by for quick reference. Do your best to produce a consistent, well-written quality product and you’ll be ahead of the crowd in making your book stand out.
Irene Watson was the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.