There, they’re, their: is it possible to soothe the grammar geek?

“When do you capitalize the days of the week other than at the beginning of a sentence?” That’s a real question, asked of me by a participant attending a “Business Writing for Results” workshop I co-facilitate with my colleague, Dene Rossouw. I was dismayed – ok, aghast – when I realized that this adult learner (English was her first language) was serious. A couple of people chimed in with a hesitant “always” but both looked at me to confirm that I would corroborate their input. Tactfully, I responded that yes, the days of the week are always capitalized.

your and you'reWe include a grammar refresher in our workshop because participants repeatedly ask for it. We are also of the opinion that fairly or not, people are judged by how they communicate. People who notice your errors might not correct you, but they will always judge you. Good communication equals reputation and credibility. You may be pitching an awesome idea or imparting well-researched data, but if the reader trips over confusing sentence structure, spelling errors and a clutch of grammatical goofs, there’s little chance those golden nuggets will ever see the light of day.

I facilitate this section of the workshop (to Dene’s enormous relief) where the focus is on some of the more common errors made in business writing. I’m not a grammar expert – and don’t represent myself as one – so we stay away from complex linguistic theory in favour of sharing useful, practical tips. We touch on consistently confused words (affect/effect, disinterested/uninterested, etc.), the difference between i.e. and e.g. (always an a-ha moment for many), some punctuation and jargon. With the help of Weird Al Yankovic’s Word Crimes” video, we keep it breezy and fun rather than pedantic.

While not a grammar expert, I admit I’m a bit of a nerd. I certainly appreciate a well-appointed semi-colon and the drumroll of the colon – letting me know that something important is coming – thrills me. I am hyper-aware of grammatical errors and typos to the extent that I can’t read a menu without finding two or three. I scream out loud when I see a public sign with a glaring error. Subject/verb disagreement? Nails on a chalkboard. And why is it so difficult for some people to grasp the difference between you’re and your?

For many years, I drove to work along Powell Street and I became convinced that the Grammar Gremlin was deliberately provoking me: daily, I had to pass a humongous billboard that crowed, “The Cannery Seafood Restaurant. Seafood at it’s finest.” misatkeMore evidence that plenty of people find the it’s/its rule incomprehensible. My exasperation at this 14 by 48 foot error was further fuelled as I speculated about the numbers of people who likely touched this sign in some capacity on its way to becoming a billboard. I despaired that not only did the client not notice, but nary a PR hack working on that campaign seemed to either. In apoplectic apostrophic protest, I refused to eat at the Cannery. It’s closed now – proof that you don’t need 1,000 angry people camping out on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery to make a difference.

I’m similarly exasperated by regular sightings of the “plural apostrophe” blunder. “Hot Buttered Bun’s.” “No Dog’s Allowed.” “Can I borrow some pencil’s?” The apostrophe has a wide range of uses within the English language. Forming plurals, however, is not one of them. Just because a word ends in s, doesn’t mean it must have an apostrophe. Lynne Truss, author of one of my favourite grammar books, Eats, Shoots & Leaves,describes her extreme reaction: “For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger.”

I wish I could just chillax about grammatical errors but I can’t. It’s probably how my son, Craig, feels when he comes to our home. He’s helped us decorate it, so our place is lovely, but every so often I get the urge to spice things up with a wee tchotchke I snagged on a random shopping excursion. I usually miss the decorative mark. He’ll spot the offending objet d’art and will say something like, “Oh my, isn’t that IN-ter-ES-ting” and then when he thinks I’m not looking, he’ll stealthily move it to a less visible spot. Like inside a cupboard.

katyperryI have read several articles recently, critical of the grammar or word nerd gone nasty. There’s a marked difference between the self-confessed and generally harmless “geek” and the pretentious, condescending “grammar snob.” The latter is a distinct breed driven by bloodlust. They can’t let an error in a casual email or a Facebook post go uncorrected. I try not to cross that line but I know occasionally, I have. As the years chug by, I am becoming more crotchety about the sloppiness that characterizes our tweeting and texting-mad society.

In our business writing workshops, we talk about how language is a living, breathing thing. It constantly changes but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. The point of writing anything (e.g. blogs, reports, proposals, emails, etc.) is to be understood, and thus our words matter. For better or worse, they are the writer in the absence of his or her physical presence. We advise workshop participants to ask a trusted co-worker to proofread, just to make sure the boss doesn’t stumble through this credibility-killing call to action: “I’d appreciate you’re approval on this report by tuesday.”

“This is the type of nonsense up with which I will not put.” (Winston Churchill).

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6 Comments on “There, they’re, their: is it possible to soothe the grammar geek?

  1. I am not a grammar geek, nor am I complete grammar slob either. I like to think I represent the average grammar citizen who is just trying to get by. However, when writing to someone that I know is a grammar nerd, it makes me pause at every word wondering if what I’m saying has been written in the correct tense, with the best punctuation possible, thus resulting in a somewhat exhausting endeavor just to send a friendly note. The number of times I do not hit “send” because I’m unsure of my words is a sad statement of my own inadequacies. I always hope I’m not going to see my paper sent back with red pen circles and a failing grade.?

    • I’m a grammar nerd not a snob. There’s an important difference, Andrea. Keep those cards and letters coming! ?

  2. Your blog’s are just to much! I just laughed out loud their.

  3. I love reading your posts, dictionary in hand. May I ask what your writing process is? Do you write for pleasure daily? How much time do you spend during a writing session?

    • Thank you, Elisabeth! I’ll send you an email in response, ok?