Defending good grammar, sort of

This post first appeared on 16 December 2010. included it among that day’s Freshly Pressed posts, a way they used to highlight interesting posts every day. It 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.


Back 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.

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

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33 responses to “Defending good grammar, sort of”

  1. 100 Country Trek Avatar

    Thanks for sharing this idea. Anita

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re welcome!

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    So many things wrong here, and of course, there’s a difference between writing for information, and writing for “feel” in novels. No matter what she says, it smacks of another incident of the youngsters not wanting to learn how to do things correctly, and trying to figure out how to demean those that do. I have a friend who was a journalist, relatively well known on a national level, and he taught at college for a while, and marked down whole grade points for wrong or missing punctuation. He said no one would allow you to turn copy in like this.

    Read the history of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of Americas best known novelist, and still respected today for his simple yet beautiful prose. He sweated over those sentences to get them as perfect as possible, so that they could be so simple and still create the feeling he wanted to convey.

    For a while now, I’ve also heard the “kids” on television pronouncing a lot of words with “t’s” in them, by eliminating one of the t’s. Example: impor-ant, instead of important. Must be some type of new “valley speak”. We have a few local young and new, news reporters that do this, and I can tell they’ve been yelled at for it, because they’ve been trying to correct it, but I even hear it on national news.

    Penelope can continue on doing what ever she wants to do, and I can continue to consider her to be marginally educated and some what illiterate. Is this country going to get to a point where these are the types of people we allow to set policy for our nation instead of ostracize them?

    This reminds me of family friends we used to have back in the 60’s, who decamped for Australia. She worked for the school system and saw the future of allowing kids to be socially graduated with substandard abilities and wasn’t going to have any of it for her kids, so she researched it and moved her family to Australia. They’ve always been very happy there.

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      BTW, I’m approaching 70, and my own grammar and punctuation is failing me every day, but I work on it when I can. I usually find it failing when I’m trying to type as fast as I’m thinking. What makes Penelope’s conversation so bogus, is that with computerization, there are numerous and easy to admin opportunities to read what you’ve written and infinitely change it! I remember my college years in the early 70’s, when every mistake I made on an essay or term paper, had to be retyped from the point of mistake, until the end! You can bet I tried to copy edit judiciously so that I’d only be typing something over maybe one more time!

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I find myself to be frustrated with your comment. Penelope Trunk is my age, and she is a terrific writer. And there’s no point on going all F. Scott Fitzgerald on a text message to your wife telling her you’re on your way home from work and are stopping at the store on the way. Who bloody cares if you forgot the question mark at the end where you ask if she wants anything, or if you misspelled “anything” because of the tiny keys on the on-screen keyboard? She got the message.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Maybe that’s the point, we are letting the use of technology control our literacy. Imagine 20 years ago when we didn’t feel the need to be in constant touch with everyone over everything? As my high school literature teacher said, “…e.e. Cummings knew the difference and was well educated, he just chose to use all lower case as a stylistic move, you don’t get to do that because you haven’t learned punctuation and usage…”. For every educated person that chooses to use an abbreviated note, or doesn’t care, there’s going to be someone that assumes that it’s ok to interact like that because they don’t want to develop the skills, or don’t know any better? I remember my father showing me a business letter from someone in Canada he interacted with in the company, and remarking on how beautiful it was written compared to what the slugs in his office were doing. For his age, my father had the rare college education.

        No reason to get upset, you can live i any world you want to live in today, it’s just not my world.

  3. Doug Anderson Avatar

    One of my maxims when I led a team of technical writers for a major telecom company was “grammar and punctuation only matter when they matter.” In documents subject to legal scrutiny grammar and punctuation can sometimes matter a lot.

    Logical thinking in writing can matter too. A recent real world example of this now has me acting as the editor for our condominium association’s rules committee. A critical time sensitive vote on a rules amendment failed because the executive board as a whole did not understand that “A and/or B” is not the same as “B and/or A” and, in an attempt at clarification, the board’s attorney did not understand that “and/or” and “either/or” are not the same thing. In both instances I pointed out the problem to the board in time for them to correct the error, but was ignored. One board member has already resigned because of the financial effect on the property owners.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s a fun maxim. It’s true. It’s all about context and audience. In the case of your condo association, the context is everyone’s wallet!

      BTW I was a tech writer early in my career, working for a company that served the telecom industry!

  4. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Interesting article! I don’t know if this relates, but it seems as though some authors aren’t very aware of tone or “voice” in writing. I’m more referring to my own field, I’m a teacher. Sometimes I find articles or lessons written in such a strident, all caps type DO THIS!!!! tone that I can’t read them without flinching.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds like those writers’ egos are in their way.

    2. Marc Beebe Avatar

      Or the mindless hyperbole titles on Youtube videos.

  5. Marc Beebe Avatar

    Some examples cited aren’t grammar, they’re typos: “it’s” for “its”. That’s what proofreading is for. In casual communication even true grammatical errors are irrelevant because you indeed need only to get the idea across. In a published work it’s more important to not say things like “he am a good writer” (right word, wrong tense). Yes I’m old like Andy and I’m married to a grammar Nazi (UK post-grad doctorate). I had to do a fair bit of technical writing in my day and always tried to get it right, although that skill is failing me now like so many others. Even so I find the two biggest problems are the people who don’t understand when the grammar is correct (I was once told it was obvious English wasn’t my first language – trust me, it is despite being born in Warsaw) and the publishers who drop in their own typos regardless of how much proof reading is done.
    As for the original premise of “as long as you get your idea across” … well, but are you? That’s the thing. I have a T-shirt printed with “I can explain it to you but I can’t understand it for you” which is meant for the technical content but can also apply to the linguistic.
    Pedantic rant over.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The whole point of the article is to adjust your level of perfection to the situation. That’s all! If you’re writing the Great American Novel, sweat every syllable. If you’re writing a text to your wife that you’re running late, just dash it off and don’t worry about it.

  6. Rush Rox Avatar

    …and don’t get me started on the Oxford comma!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Which I use!

  7. Brian Purdy Avatar
    Brian Purdy

    The grammar’s fine and so’s the water. I swam through your prose with pleasure.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Why thank you!

  8. seatacphoto1951 Avatar

    Writing done well leads to speaking well and vise versa.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, it’s all practice. I make few grammatical errors because I write all the time and it now comes easily.

  9. fotosharp3820ea7ebf Avatar

    Excellent post. I thought your piece was actually more helpful than Penelope’s because of the examples you gave for practical use.

    BTW, I saved this under the title “Defending Bad Grammer” for future reference. :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      She did go to the absurd to make her point, and I was more balanced!

  10. bikenerd Avatar

    I’m a bit of a grammar nerd myself, but I think most of what bothers me about poor grammar in published writing is that it’s usually more the product of inattention and laziness than anything else. And don’t these people/publications have standards, and proofreaders or editors? I feel that poor grammar in an otherwise thoughtful article is like a well-composed photo that’s slightly out of focus – some of the intended impact is lost.
    Having said that, eloquence matters more, and is not necessarily related to grammar!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sure, and this article argues in favor of good grammar and punctuation in published work! I think the thing that’s easy to miss, however, is that something less formal or critical, such as a quick email to a friend, can suffer a certain amount of sloppiness.

  11. Karen Bryan Avatar
    Karen Bryan

    I’m an old lady, so maybe that accounts for my irritation whenever I see errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling, especially when I see them in magazines, newspapers, and other publications, which these days seem to have fired their proofreaders. I can’t help it. In my mind, I take a big red pencil and underline them. When I was in college (back in the Stone Age), I had a roommate–sweetest girl you’d ever want to know–who enlisted my help whenever she had a paper to write. I didn’t just fix the little things; I felt honor-bound to rearrange the words for clarity and complete her sentences. I still believe that sloppy writing is the product of sloppy thinking (I can’t get Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” out of my head). As Mark Twain said in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”, it’s just not good enough to reach for the right word and settle for its second cousin.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sure, in a magazine or the newspaper such things just grate. They should take the time to make it right.

  12. andytree101 Avatar

    Hi Jim, I’m no writer, that’s for sure, but I hope I write something that’s reasonable! I find that once I start writing I tend to “get into the flow” and tap away on the keyboard, let it flow. Then however I edit, I go back and re-read, often move sections about, and correct many spelling mistakes and typo’s. If I didn’t do this, my words would be muddled at best! I therefore agree with both sides of the argument, yes, flow without worry, but do edit a bit so that it’s a reasonable read! No problems here of course! Cheers Andy

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s a terrific way to do it! Just get the words out, and then later go back and whip them into shape.

  13. Russ Ray Avatar

    I’m only here to say that I think it’s cool that you edited for David Pogue. I love watching him on CBS Sunday Morning – in fact, I used to show a story he did on cybersecurity to my students when I taught computer classes.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m sure David has forgotten all about me by now, but he used to insist that I edit his work. Once I flew to NYC for the company to take shifts in our booth at a trade show, and David invited me to his apartment off Broadway one evening. He showed me a TV show he was working on for an Australian broadcaster (I think), and he and his girlfriend took me out for Thai food around the corner. He was fun and a good host.

  14. J P Avatar

    A legal writing class I took pounded the idea into my head that there’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing. It’s certainly true for me, but 40 years later I have developed an ability to pound out “good enough” in one sitting.

    Also, my college roommate was a grammar and composition major. He was a good friend who loved few things more than busting my chops for improper grammar during conversations. It got me in the habit of paying attention. I laugh when my kids tell me that I get an exemption from the texting rule against ending a sentence with a period unless you are being churlish in making a point.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s true. Vomit out the words and then go back and whip them into shape. But like you I can do “good enough” in one sitting. I do go back and edit/rewrite when I have time, but I don’t always.

  15. Gil Aegerter Avatar

    I spent my whole working life as an editor and reporter. Bad grammar, poor syntax, misspellings, errant punctuation … these can be the product of haste, inattention, uninterest, etc., but the overall impression is that the writer doesn’t care too much about the product. And if the writer can’t be bothered to pay attention to those details, what does that say about their attention to facts, meaning and argument? Grammar and syntax aid all of these.

    We recently spent a week on Oahu in a small subdivision that is called “Lanikai.” At the end of the week, we went to the excellent Native Books at Arts & Letters, which is a great resource on Hawaiian culture, politics and environment, both as a bookseller and as a publisher. As my wife was gathering some books, I leafed through a volume on place names on Oahu. Sadly, many of the original names for places have been subsumed by colonizers’ names. One such place is Lanikai. The name comes from the developers who platted the subdivision in the 1920s. They wanted the name to mean “heavenly sea” — kai meaning sea, lani meaning heavenly. But they ignored the grammar of the Hawaiian language when they built the word. In Hawaiian, the noun comes first, the modifier afterward. To get “heavenly sea,” the name should have been Kailani. As it stands, the name has no meaning. The original name was Kaʻōhao.

    So, yes, grammar matters, whatever the language.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, grammar matters. It just matters more when you’re writing great literature than when you’re dashing off a quick email to a friend.

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