Categorized | seriously dumb

Why grammar counts

Washington Post grammar-challenged headline

I right for the Washington Poste.

Today, for all the universe to see, The Washington Post has publicly announced that it doesn’t know the first thing about English grammar, as you can see in the headline to the right. (It’s “fewer gifts,” never “less gifts.”)

Now, I don’t really traffic in grammar pedantry. Language is dynamic, volatile, and endlessly creative — in fact, what I love most about language is how people mangle and misuse language. I do it all the time, but, as the warning goes on television, I know what I’m doing (although, I admit, much of the time, I write in a white heat at 100+ words per minute without the proper care and caution). However, correctly using the language you do business in is one of the core, essential ingredients in doing business with the outside world. Especially in your marketing and public relations.

Yet, learning to use language well is often the last thing entrepreneurs, managers, and even marketers and PR twits make any effort to master.

In terms of presenting a public face to your business, getting language wrong is like wearing Fresno Bulldog tattoos on your face or dressing in a ratty old robe and unwashed jockstrap for a business meeting. It signals a lack of respect for your audience and tells them that you’re not to be trusted. That you don’t care about either the fundamentals or the details.

If you can’t write a simple sentence correctly, can we trust you to manufacture a product without defects? Write a software program that isn’t crawling with bugs? Create an email campaign that produces results?

And if you’re a news reporting organization and don’t know elementary English usage (when to use “fewer” and when to use “less”), can we trust that your reporting standards are any better?

So, as you contemplate building a public face for your business with marketing and PR materials, you will be tempted to buy boatloads of books about purple cows and PR turbochargers to learn the best (or wildest) practices to reach and persuade an audience. But the first book you should invest in should be one that teaches you how to use the language you do business in correctly and well. Words, phrases, and sentences are the atoms and molecules of marketing, PR, and sales. The language you use is what makes marketing and sales possible in the first place. And it’s not like speaking and writing correctly is hard to learn. It’s not rocket science. In fact, it’s not even high school science. Almost everything you need to know is taught by sixth grade (well, 12th grade if you’re in the American school system).

Take the Washington Post’s grammar goof. Knowing when to use “less” and when to use “fewer” in a sentence takes all of three seconds to learn and master for a lifetime — if you can count something, then you have “fewer” of it, such as “fewer desks,” “fewer dogs,” “fewer gifts”; if you can’t count it, then you have “less” of it, such as “less gas,” “less room,” “less motivation.” Was that hard?

And you always — always — hire an editor who knows all the rules of grammar and usage to polish anything that’s written about your company — brochures, Web sites, newsletters, press releases. Unless you want to prove to everyone that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Washington Post grammar-challenged headline

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