Poor Grammar in Business Writing

by Craig Shrives

Don't Let Poor Grammar Undermine Your Effectiveness

Poor grammar will undermine your business document. If you're trying to sell something or present a controversial idea, you are likely to fail if your text contains grammar errors. If you include writing errors in your document, your readers will instantly think they're better than you, and they will read your work with an attacking mindset. In other words, your ability to influence them will be significantly reduced.

You only have four levers to pull to ensure your work is read: your seniority, your credibility, your choice of words, and your structure. You can't change your seniority quickly, but you can pull on the other levers every time.

Types of Grammarian

I have observed that there are three levels of grammarian:
  • Level 1 (bad grammarian) . "Level 1" people don't think about grammar. They make dozens of basic mistakes, and they don't care. Usually, their chosen professions do not require good writing skills. These people are not the ones who need help.
  • Level 2 (dangerous grammarian) . "Level 2" people are quick to point a finger at "Level 1" people. They think they're "Level 3," but they're not. They regularly include errors in their work, but they are oblivious to them. These are the ones who need help. They're undermining their own work, and they don't know it.
  • Level 3 (good grammarian) . "Level 3" people discuss topics like parallel sentence structures and the trade-off between eliminating ambiguity and adhering to local writing conventions. These people know why non-restrictive clauses are punctuated as they are, and they usually avoid semi-colons by choosing better alternatives.
The vast majority of people are Level 2.

How Is Your Grammar?

It would be great if we were all at Level 3, but we're not, and getting there would be a time-consuming and painful process. The best thing to do (and this applies to everyone) is to get someone else to check your writing. The chances of the gaps in your grammar know-how being exactly the same as someone else's are pretty slim. For example, you might struggle with affect/effect, and they might struggle with capital letters, but overlaid, your grammar know-hows will provide an intact grammar shield.

Unfortunately, Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Many of those operating at Level 2 (and that's most of us) are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This effect occurs when a person's incompetence prevents them from seeing their incompetence. It is well captured with the adage Ignorance is bliss.

Picture this. Toby, our Level 2 grammarian, is happily typing away. Every few paragraphs, he types a nasty little grammar error, but he doesn't know they're mistakes. He knows that "two solution's" would be wrong, but he doesn't know that the "compliment" he just typed should be "complement" and that the "Client" should be "client." In ignorant bliss, Toby carries on. When he presses "Send", his message and his "grammar incompetency badge" go whizzing off to the addressees.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect stopped Toby seeing his incompetence, but all the addressees can now see it. Another effect now kicks in: the Halo Effect. This ensures that a good or bad trait (and in this case, it's a bad trait) permeates throughout everything, even things that aren't related to the trait. So, Toby's bad grammar is now undermining everything he wrote. A quick check with a grammar program and by another person, and his grammar errors would probably have been spotted, making his whole message far more credible.

Grammar Checkers Don't Always Work

Grammar-checking software can be a great help, but you need to understand what it is doing for you. If you think a grammar-checking program is going to solve all your grammar issues, then you need to adjust your expectations.

Grammar checkers perform a "mathematical check" on the grammar. They do not understand the words, and this is the main reason why they're not 100% effective. Here are some examples:
  • Grammar checkers often miss erroneous apostrophes.
  • Example: I have one dog. My dogs' kennel is green.
    Even in this simple example, the grammar checker is unable to determine that the kennel belongs to one dog (i.e., it should read: "My dog's kennel is green.") This is because it does not link the two sentences or even understand them. Mathematically, "dogs' kennel" is feasible as a standalone piece of English.
  • Grammar checkers often can't help with capital letters.
  • Example: The church is near the tube station.
    In this example, "The church" refers to a pub called "The Church". Therefore, "church" should start with a capital letter. With no context, however, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence, and a grammar checker would ignore it.
  • Grammar checkers often can't help with "that" and "which."
  • Example: He has selected the model which Tony developed on Monday.
    The latest grammar checkers would recommend the use of "that" instead of "which" in this example. (Both are correct.) However, grammar checkers would also wrongly suggest ", which" (with a comma) as an option. This is not a subject for this book, but it suffices to say:
    • "which" (without a comma) equals "that"
    • ", which" (with a comma) does not equal "that"
  • Grammar checkers often confuse the meanings of simple words.
  • Example: Sandra was seen by the bridge.
    In this example, a grammar checker is likely to suggest the version "The bridge saw Sandra". This is because it does not realise that the word "by" is being used to mean "near".
  • Grammar checkers can't work out if some words are plural or singular.
  • Example: People who don't think about grammar.
    In this example, a grammar checker is likely to suggest the version "People who doesn't think about grammar". This is because it does not realise that the word "who" relates to the plural word "people". It knows that "who" can be singular or plural, so it offers the one you didn't choose to make you check. Grammar checkers do this a lot. For example, many will suggest "allude" if you type "elude" (and vice versa) to encourage you to check you've used the right one.
Don't get me wrong. I think the people who write these grammar programs are geniuses. Nevertheless, these simple examples illustrate some of the flaws in grammar checkers. That's enough on grammar, but remember that one omitted or misplaced apostrophe can sink you:
"Were the best butchers in St. Helens!"
(This should be "We're the best butchers in St. Helens!")

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