Grammar – just try harder, please

You get judged by the way you write. You (and I) probably get judged on a lot more than that, honestly, but grammar has a certain set of rules that you can be judged on in your absence, in the case of the written word.

Everyone makes mistakes. It happens. Habitual inconsistencies, however, point to laziness or ignorance, and thereby we shall all be found wanting.

First, go ahead and review these fun comics from The Oatmeal (@oatmeal): At the bottom of this particular comic, there are links to other grammar-related comics. They are a unique blend of humor and clarity.

It only takes some small changes to take your writing from miserable to decent. Consider these little suggestions:

  • “LOL” isn’t punctuation; don’t use it as such. If you’re not literally laughing out loud, don’t use it. Even if you are laughing out loud, if it isn’t adding to what you have to say, consider omitting it.
  • There are fewer rules for semi-colons than for commas. Consider learning the rules for semi-colons, since they’re easy to remember. There’s no plausible excuse for misusing them.
  • Learn your homonyms. Don’t mix up you’re/your and their/they’re/there.
  • Don’t misuse apostrophes.
  • Be consistent.

If you have those items covered, here are some more advanced things to work on:

  • Learn the rules for commas. There are a lot of rules, and they vary by the style you use, but you’ll find you don’t need to know every rule to write decently.
  • Less and fewer mean different things. Less refers to volume or quantity; fewer refers to individual items. Do you remember that commercial for the HPV vaccine? The tagline was “I want to be one less.” But they should have said “fewer” because the girls were referring to themselves as individuals.
  • Over and more than mean different things. “Over 50 years ago” is incorrect. “Over” is a physical or spatial designation. You cannot be physically above 50 years. If you’re referring to a number, you probably want to use “more than.”
  • Read more. The more you read, the better you will write.

It’s ok to make mistakes. Try to trend towards continuously improving. Try to be consistent within any one piece of writing, whether it’s a status update or a blog post or an email. Then, work towards consistency across your writing. The sad truth is that you will be judged harshly if you make silly errors. The judgment will be worse if you make silly mistakes repeatedly, so aim for minimizing mistakes. If you make a mistake and you can correct it, do so and move on. If you cannot, take it as a lesson learned to not make it again.

When I taught college composition, I never minded if a student made mistakes in his writing, as long as he learned from those mistakes. When a student continually made the same mistakes, despite being corrected on every paper all semester long, I considered that student to be lazy and irresponsible. As an aside, the strangest mistake my students all seemed to make was writing “backround” for “background.” I have no idea why. A large part of my job is editing, and so I am usually (although not always) hyper aware of grammar violations. When I see a poorly written email, I immediately dismiss the writer. This happens to anyone who has ever submitted a cover letter or resume. Grammar is absolutely essential to students’ lives after college.

So just try harder, please.

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