What Business People Think About Grammar and Usage1
Early in the book, I included acceptable usage among
the most important qualities of good writing. Indeed, some professionals
seem to be bothered almost as much by shaky grammar as by shaky thinking.
Benjamin DeMott, not only a fine writer but an English teacher, recalls
one rock-ribbed senior partner in a law firm who was obsessed with what
he thought was the misuse of the comma. Obviously, such quirks are impossible
to predict. But are there any particular errors that most managers and
professional people find especially troublesome? Oddly enough, there
has been little research into this question.
In September of 1979, I sent a questionnaire to 101 professional
people asking them how they would respond to lapses from standard English
usage and mechanics in each of sixty-three sentences if those sentences
appeared in a business document that came across their desks. The eighty-four
people who responded to the questionnaire represented a broad range
of professionals: engineers, judges, bankers, attorneys, architects,
public relations executives, corporation and college presidents, tax
analysts, investment counselors, and a U. S. Congressman, to name just
a few. They ranged in age from thirty to seventy, but most were in their
late forties and early fifties. Twenty-two were women, and sixty-two
were men. No English teachers were included in the survey.
Each of the sixty-three sentences on the questionnaire
contained one error in usage or mechanics, and the respondents were
asked to mark one of these responses for every sentence: Does Not Bother
Me, Bothers Me a Little, Bothers Me a Lot. The last question asked for
an open-ended comment about the most annoying feature they encountered
in writing they had to read.
After tabulating all the responses to the sentences and
reading all the comments, I came to these conclusions about how professional
people react to writing that they encounter in the course of their work:
The defects in writing that professional people complained
of most were lack of clarity, wordiness, and failure
to get to the point. They also complained strongly about poor
grammar, faulty punctuation, and bad spelling.
The middle-aged, educated, and successful men and
women who occupy positions of responsibility in the business and professional
world are sensitive to the way people write. Even allowing for the
strong possibility that they were more than normally conservative
in responding to a questionnaire from an English teacher, most professionals
seem to believe that writers should observe the conventions of standard
Responses to the individual items on the survey indicate,
however, that these professional people clearly consider some lapses
in usage and mechanics much more serious than others. Here is the way
they ranked items on the questionnaire:
Extremely serious lapses from the
Incorrect verb forms ("he brung," "he was," he don't").
Subjects in the objective case ("Him and Jones are
Fused sentences ("He loved his job he never took
Failure to capitalize proper names, especially those
referring to people and places.
A comma between the verb and complement of the sentence.
E.g., ("Cox cannot predict, that street crime will diminish").
Serious lapses from the standard:
- Faculty parallelism.
- Subject-verb disagreement.
- Adjectives used to modify verbs ("He treats his men bad").
- Not marking interrupters such as "However" with comma.
- Subjective pronouns used for objects ("The Army sent my husband
and I to Japan").
- Confusion of the verbs "sit" and "set".
Moderately serious lapses:
Failure to use quotation marks around quoted material.
Plural modifier with a singular noun ("These
Omitting commas in a series.
Faulty predication ("The policy intimidates applications").
Ambiguous use of "which."
Objective form of a pronoun used as a subjective
complement ("That is her across the street").
Confusion of the verbs "affect" and "effect."
Lapses that seem to matter very little:
- Failure to distinguish between "whoever" and whomever."
- Omitting commas to set off interrupting phrases such as appositives.
- Joining independent clauses with a comma; that is, a comma splice.
- Confusion of "its" and it's".
- Failure to use the possessive form before a gerund ("The company
objects to us hiring new salespeople").
- Failure to distinguish between "among" and "between."
Lapses that do not seem to matter:
- A qualifying word used before "unique" (That is the most unique
plan we have seen").
- "They" used to refer to a singular pronoun ("Everyone knows they
will have to go").
- Omitting a comma after an introductory clause.
- Singular verb form used with "data" ("The data is significant").
- Linking verb followed by "when" ("The problem is when patients
refuse to cooperate").
- Using a pronoun "that" to refer to people.
- Using a colon after a linking verb ("The causes of the decline
are: inflation, apathy, and unemployment").
1 Adapted from Hairston, Maxine
C. (1986). Successful Writing (2nd ed.).
New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 230-33.
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