Stories Told

Defending good grammar, sort of

This post first appeared three years ago today. WordPress.com included it among that day’s Freshly Pressed posts, which led to the most views ever in one day on this blog: 5,189. That was a tenth of all the views I got all that year! It was a turning point for my little blog, bringing me lots of new readers. Maybe you are one of them.

Blogger Penelope Trunk wrote last year in defense of poor grammar. And then recently she did it again. She claims that it’s better to judge people by their ideas, creativity, and enthusiasm than by how well they write. The implication is that as long as they can get their ideas across, the grammar (and, by extension, punctuation and spelling) isn’t all that important. She goes on to claim that good grammar might actually hold you back in your career!

For several years I made my living as a writer and editor, so obviously I’m going to disagree. But I don’t disagree violently. I rather like some of Penelope’s arguments. She just applies them with a bit too heavy of a hand.

GrammarNaziCatBack when I edited other people’s words for my supper, I edited all of David Pogue’s books. (Since then, he’s become the technology columnist for the New York Times.) His copy, always clear and engaging, was a pleasure to edit. Because his books sold like mad, my bosses always gave me plenty of time to work on them.

Most of my other authors wrote B- and C-list titles, which meant I got far less time to edit them. Too bad, because none of those authors wrote as well as Pogue. So I developed a hierarchy of editing that let me do the most good with the time I had. My first pass through someone’s text fixed problems of organization and structure, making the text more expository. My second pass fixed problems of logic and fact that would confuse or mislead readers. My third pass fixed errors of syntax and style. My final pass fixed grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. I stopped editing when I ran out of time – and I seldom made it to the final pass.

Let’s be real. If a writer confuses its and it’s or writes sight for sitenobody’s going to misunderstand. And Penelope argues that the goal should be simply to get your ideas across. If I got through just the first two passes in my hierarchy, I made dramatic improvements to the text’s ability to do that. In comparison, grammar, punctuation, and spelling were just window dressing.

Penelope also condemns impeccable grammar as the product of “demented, perfectionist thinking.” As a recovering perfectionist, I can say with some authority that for most tasks, perfection is at best a waste of time and at worst pathological. Anything you do can always be done better, but past some point the effort to make it better isn’t worth the return. Unless you’re disarming a bomb, good enough is just right.

But I can’t go all the way with Penelope and say that grammar doesn’t matter. After all, it gives us the tools to make sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting. I have to think Penelope isn’t opposed to clarity and interestingness, but rather to needless attention to detail.

The trick, then, is in determining the point past which polish doesn’t pay, and that depends entirely on what you’re writing and who will read it. If you’re writing something fast for your friends, like a text message or a quick e-mail, type it, send it, and don’t worry about it. At the other end of the spectrum stands high literature, which deserves your utmost effort – and which, sorry to say, you are probably not writing. For everything in between, make the right reasonable effort to get it right, and then stop. Reread that letter to the editor or proposal to your boss and fix what you find. Hire someone to edit your resume or business plan or any other document that may form your first or only impression. But then if a grammar, punctuation, or spelling mistake slips through, let the brilliance of your ideas outshine it.

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I’ve been Freshly Pressed thrice more: about
this camera, this camera, and these old cars.

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