What Business People Think About Grammar and Usage1

Maxine C. Hairston

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:

  • Women take a more conservative attitude about standard English usage than men do. On every item, the percentage of women marking "Bothers Me a Lot" was much higher than the percentage of men.
  • 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 English usage.

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 standard:

  • Incorrect verb forms ("he brung," "he was," he don't").

  • Double negatives.

  • Sentence fragments.

  • Subjects in the objective case ("Him and Jones are going").

  • Fused sentences ("He loved his job he never took holidays").

  • 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:

  • Tense shifting.

  • Dangling modifiers.

  • Failure to use quotation marks around quoted material.

  • Plural modifier with a singular noun ("These kind").

  • 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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