Grammar as a fundamental competency

There’s an interesting article in the Huffington Post today about a guy who won’t hire anyone to work for his online repair company, regardless of the position, unless he or she can pass a basic grammar test. He calls those who are unable to correctly write and speak the English language “fundamentally incompetent.”

His proposition intrigues me because I am (affectionately, I hope) known to my friends as the Grammar Goddess, Grammar Guru or, if they’re put out with me, Grammar Nazi. I don’t care for that last moniker because I make it a point not to correct anyone’s grammar unless somebody specifically asks me to do so.

When comforting a grammar Nazi, I always say softly, "there, their, they're"

I am a writer and an editor by training and trade, so language is my particular specialty and I take the writing and speaking of it quite seriously indeed–for myself. As for how others write and speak their native tongue (and I can only address native English speakers here), I have my opinions but I don’t express them in conversation because nothing good can come of it. (If [really] salty language does not offend you, watch Downfall of Grammar on YouTube. It’s over the top but also very funny.)

Modern English is more than 500 years old and is today the dominant language and in some instances the required international language of communications, science, information technology, business, seafaring, aviation, entertainment, radio and diplomacy. Anyone who speaks English as a native language and who has completed at least 12 years of standard American education can and should speak the language correctly. Language instruction is, as far as I know, still a central pillar of primary education in this country. At the very least, children spend 12 years in the classroom listening to adults who speak the language correctly, and that is more than enough time to master its fundamental syntax (although it takes quite a few more years than that to master the technical subtleties).  Anybody who watches the news on television or listens to it on the radio hears proper English grammar being spoken. Most books, newspapers and magazines are written in standard English. Even most of what is written on the internet (at least what is written by professionals, I hope) is standard English.

When I hear otherwise capable, intelligent people using double negatives such as “I don’t got none of that” (one of the most obvious and most easily avoided grammatical errors), my opinion of them changes. I can’t help it. What excuse does any adult have for not knowing how to speak properly?

The owner of that repair company in the Huffington Post article says, “We need a serious commitment to attention to detail. Our grammar test shows us the early warning signs that a person doesn’t have the same values we have.” In other words, what he realizes is that “how you do anything is how you do everything.” People who disregard (or do not know) the rules of grammar and syntax might be more likely to take a relaxed view about following other rules as well. Ignorance is not equal to mastery on the grounds that “I can talk any way I want to talk.” Sure, one can, of course, but if a person proudly and unabashedly speaks her own native language poorly, what else is she proud of doing poorly just because she can? From what other standard societal conventions and expectations does she consider herself exempted? How you do anything is how you do everything.

The rules of how to write and speak the English language, while always evolving, are also quite clearly established, and I have dedicated myself both personally and professionally to learning and following those rules. I am a profoundly rules-based person by nature: I want to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons–not to earn brownie points or to be better than other people but because it’s right.

Being a good communicator means that I can express myself clearly, concisely and accurately to a wide variety of people in a wide variety of settings, and that is to both my advantage and theirs. A great many of this world’s problems can be traced to poor communication between individuals.

I’ve been called pedantic, nit-picking, rigid, uptight, anal-retentive, and a host of other names because of my views about following rules, including language rules, but I’ve found that doing so minimizes not only trouble for me but also trouble that I cause to other people, and the latter is of greater value in my estimation. Mastery of language is a fundamental competency.



8 thoughts on “Grammar as a fundamental competency

  1. “How you do anything is how you do everything.” That is a perfect way to summarize WHY grammar nit-pickers get so hot about grammar errors. It is one thing to do something incorrectly out of ignorance, but another thing entirely to decide it’s not worth the bother to do right. What else are you going to decide it’s not worth the effort to do right in the first place? When we are communicating, the impact of our message is dependent on our ability to convey the message. If we cannot attend to the basic conventions of the agreed-upon system for communicating our message it makes us look sloppy and stupid.

  2. As an educator, I’m concerned at times with the lax view of other educators when it comes to students using Standard American English. It is not the only key to success, but it is an important one. Research demonstrates that people who make grammatical errors in speech during an interview are less likely to get the job.

    • “He spotted me sitting in the audience.” The person he spotted was “me,” and I was sitting in the audience.

      On the other hand, it would be correct to say “My sitting in the audience made him nervous” because the gerund phrase “sitting in the audience” is the subject and requires the possessive. It was not “me” that made him nervous, it was “my” action, sitting in the audience.

      It would also be correct to say “He resented my sitting in the audience.” He did not resent “me,” he resented “my” action, which was sitting in the audience.

      English is a tricky language. 😉

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