So You Think Grammar Don’t Matter?

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Category: Legal Education, Legal Practice, Legal Writing, Public
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We all know its a tight job market out their.  So you got to make sure you set yourself a part from other applicants.  One way to do this is to spend alot of time working threw ur resume and cover letter making sure they say what you want them to say and so that they convey the rite image of you.

And if your cover letter or email to an employer looks or sounds anything like the above paragraph, you can be assured you won’t get an interview, much less get hired, especially at Kyle Wiens’ business.  Why?  Wiens won’t hire anyone who doesn’t care about grammar.

According to the Huffington Post, Wiens is the chief executive officer of iFixit, an online repair community based in California. No matter how qualified a candidate for a position at iFixit, that person must pass a grammar test to be hired.

Sound schoolmarmish?  Maybe.  But Wiens has a valid point.

Correct grammar is critical regardless of industry, according to Wiens. “Every company that is dealing with professional clients should have a modicum of professionalism in their communications,” he said.

The proliferation of email, texting, and social media has produced a generation of what I would call lazy writers. Due to the need (or is it desire?) for a rapid response and occasionally because of space limitations (140 characters on Twitter, for example), people are short-handing—and short-changing—their writing.  We certainly can communicate and do so much faster than ever before, but we’re also doing so in a much sloppier way.  As the drink coaster I once picked up from a local restaurant proclaims, “2 much txting mks u 1 bad splr.”  But spelling is not the only problem.  The proper use of punctuation (as something other than emoticons), making proper word choices (along with knowing the difference between words that look or sound similar but have different meanings), and in general caring about how a message looks and sounds seem to have fallen away with the handwritten letter.

Lawyers are wordsmiths.  As Professors Moliterno and Lederer say, “The legal profession lives and breathes through the written word. . . .”  As such, we of all people must be particularly careful with how we use our words and cognizant of the impression we make when we use them. Whether we are writing a memo to a partner, a brief to the court, or an email to a colleague or client, what we say and how we say it matters.  Now, this is not to say that we are never allowed to make mistakes.  We all do. It would be arrogant of me (and wrong) if I claimed to never make any.  (I’m thinking now of the time I was grading a student’s paper during the very early hours of the morning. I meant to write, “I’m impressed!” but ending up writing (and sending to the student), “I’m impressive!”  Yeah, that one was embarrassing.)

This year, all of Marquette University Law School’s legal writing professors have begun using in their 1L courses a relatively new online self-instructional learning tool called Core Grammar for Lawyers.  The program provides students an opportunity to test their initial grammar knowledge through a 90-minute pre-test.  Depending on a student’s results on the pre-test, a student may “test out” of lessons on any one of six topics.  Whether the student tests out or not, the student can work through each of the 24 lessons on the site.  The six broad topic areas are: sentence structure; quotations; lists; verbs and agreement; citation manual eccentricities; and clarity. When the student has finished all of the lessons, she may take a post-test to gauge her progress. One of the reasons I like this program is that it is geared specifically toward law students (and lawyers), covering the conventions that are particular to our field.

Of course, there is a time and place for everything, and when in Rome, one must do as the Romans do.  Thus, in email or texts to friends and family, it’s fine to turn down (but not off) your inner grammarian.  Go ahead and use emoticons, incomplete sentences, misspelled words, whatever.  Your family and friends will still love you, even though you wrote “over” when you should have written “more than” or when you LOL and :-D.  As well, Twitter does limit you to 140 characters, so you do need to choose those characters (and your overall message) wisely.

Even so, practice makes perfect; the more you consciously work at improving your grammar and writing, the better both will become.  One of my favorite quotes is from Bill Walsh, a copy editor from The Washington Post.  In his witty but informative book The Elephants of Style:  A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English, Walsh notes, “Language evolves, but at each instant in that evolution there will be ways of writing that will strike educated readers as ignorant.”  He continues, “[I]f you, too, are in the business of writing,” and as lawyers, you are, “you have to answer one big question:  Do you want to look stupid?

I hope your answer—like mine—is “no.”

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4 Responses to “So You Think Grammar Don’t Matter?”

  1. Another question may be whether I want to look stupid to some anal retentive CEO of some California corporation and to that I would answer “I don’t care.” I might also ask if a grammar requirement operates to eliminate certain minorities, such as those for whom English is a second language.

    Then I could suggest grammar is racist, and start putting question marks in the middle of run on sentences and maybe? suggest that grammar is a hobby, the rules are fixed by old people who sometimes don’t see where the changes come from (ending a sentence with a preposition now.

    Also, the President says ain’t quite a lot, and it turned out OK for him, even though I was told many times that ain’t ain’t a word.

  2. Carolyn Bach Says:

    I agree it’s a problem. I’ve passed over job candidates based on spelling or grammatical errors.
    A related issue among the text/tweet generation is the lack of verbal skills when talking on the phone. In today’s competitive job market, telephonic interviews are often the initial step in the interview process. I have two teenagers at home who are so inept at carrying on an articulate conversation over the phone that I find myself occasionally hanging up on my own kids. It’s time to draft a phone etiquette lesson.

  3. I’d like to add my grammatical pet peeve: the misuse of the word MYSELF. I hear it everywhere, and it seems to be spreading. Remarks such as give it to Jan or myself. Everyone, please be aware that you can give it to yourself or I can give it to myself. If the sentence begins with I, then you can use the reflexive pronoun myself. If the phrase doesn’t begin with I, you’re probably wrong.

  4. LLwellyn Thapedi Says:

    The President uses “ain’t” deliberately as a method of being folksy. Generally his use of English is correct. Don’t use him as an excuse. He was Law Review for goodness sake.

    Grammar, racist? Please. Give me a break! If you use a language, you should make a strong effort to learn to use it correctly.

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