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Let me talk about something that I feel like I’ve been circling around for some time, but never quite directly addressed. It’s a common thing in grammar grousers: playing up other people’s questionable usages as symptomatic of a larger disease while playing down one’s own as a clever subversion of stodgy English. Whereas the complainant’s usages are all justified by improving the language or enlivening the prose or just plain sounding right, the scorned writer’s usages are utterly unjustified — not because the complainant has considered possible justifications and found none of them sufficient, but rather because it is simply self-evident that an error is an error.*

Thus we see Salon’s Mary Elizbeth Williams writing a screed against sentential hopefully, but then absolving herself for using stabby and rapey. I find both of those to be worse than the targets of her ire — especially rapey, the jokey tone of which I find borderline offensive. Crucially, though, even as I reject her words, I can see why she likes them; it’s just that for me, their benefits don’t outweigh their downsides. Williams, on the other hand, seems to ignore any potential upsides to the usages she dislikes. When she says rapey, she sees it as the considered usage of a professional writer, an improvement on the language. When you write sentential hopefully, it’s because you can’t be bothered to think about your usage and the effects it could have on the language.

Similarly, I got into a short Twitter war with a follower who tweeted that she wanted to send copies of education majors’ grammatical errors to future employers. I pointed out that the follower (whose Twitter name is “Grammar Nazi”, about which the less said the better) had questionable usages in her bio:

“A soon to graduate English major whose biggest turn on is good grammar.”

In my grammar, there’re three missing hyphens, but she responded to me noting this with “I’m sure you’re aware compounding is a grey area. Rules may be generally agreed upon, but no official guidelines exist.” Such “generally agreed-upon” rules were probably settled enough for the tweeter to treat as errors had others broken them, but because she’s doing it, it’s okay. Her choice to go against the standards is justified, because she sees the justification. The education majors’, with their justifications left implicit, probably wouldn’t be.**

This forgiveness extends, of course, to include other people whose viewpoint the writer is sympathetic to. Kyle Wiens, who wrote that Harvard Business Review piece on his intolerance for grammar errors in his hiring practices, had a couple of questionable usages in the piece — nothing too bad, but things that would violate a true Zero Tolerance stance. Another blogger quoted some of the piece and added:

“Ignoring the one or two grammatical glitches within the quoted text (they may be the result of a message that was delivered orally, rather than in written form), the message […] should be taken to heart. If you write poorly, you tell your reader: I haven’t changed. My education hasn’t made me better, it hasn’t touched my core. […] I’m certainly not looking to have excellence be part of my personal brand – it’s too hard and too time consuming.”

The blogger seeks out an explanation for Wiens’s errors that diminishes the errors, but then chooses an explanation for everyone else’s that diminishes the writers.

We all do this to some extent. The most prominent example for me is when I come home from work and find a pile of dishes in the sink from my roommates. “C’mon guys, you can’t be bothered to do the dishes?” I wonder to myself and to anyone I talk to over the next few days. Yet I’ve just realized that I forgot to finish the dishes this morning before going to campus. Somehow I can’t muster the same indignation at myself as I have toward my roommates, because I had an excuse. (And I’ll tell you it as soon as I figure it out.)

Sure, it’s fair to give known-good writers more leeway than known-bad ones. But every error has a cause, and every usage a rationale. Don’t decide ahead of time that someone can’t be wrong or can’t be right.

*: This isn’t unique to grammar by any means; half of politics is explaining away your side’s missteps while playing up the other side’s.

*: By the way, you may wonder if I’m not doing exactly what I oppose here by complaining about a minor error that some people do not see as an error. On that, two points. One, hyphenating phrases that are used as adjectives (especially more-than-two-word phrases) is about as standard a rule of punctuation as one can find. Similarly with hyphenating a phrasal verb in its nominal form. Two, not that she needs to justify herself to me, but she doesn’t explain any reason why she’s breaking the rule, so as far as I can tell, she’s breaking the rule just to break it — hardly appropriate behavior for an otherwise hard-liner.

Remember when Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves was the big thing? Surely you remember the heady rush when our society realized it was alright to publicly shame someone for their grammatical, punctuative, or spelling errors because a humourously mean British woman said it was, right? I sure do, because it was this blossoming of societal unpleasantness that definitively kicked me off the rolls of peevers and into my current role as a shamer of the shamers.

If there was anything new about Truss’s book, it was the philosophical stance of Zero Tolerance toward errors. Sure, previous writers had been intolerant; reading through Bierce’s Write it Right or Vizetelly’s Handbook or Partridge’s Usage and Abusage will provide ample examples of small errors treated as signs of complete illiteracy. But Truss’s Zero Tolerance policy took off among non-professionals in a way that these previous books hadn’t.

The true indicator of a best-seller is finding it years later in a $1 clearance rack at a used book store. Same with best-selling albums at a record store.

It’s been eight years since Truss’s book hit the scene, and while it’s no longer as prominent as it once was, the Zero Tolerance philosophy remains influential. Witness Kyle Wiens’s post on the Harvard Business Review’s blog from earlier this week. Wiens has started his own company, where he demands that any potential employee pass a grammar test before being hired, regardless of whether the position involves any substantial writing component.

His argument isn’t without merit. Basically, Wiens argues that attention to grammar is an indication of attention to detail in general. Of course, it’s a noisy indicator — especially when he’s hiring programmers, I imagine — but is it any noisier than the fashion-based or etiquette-based decisions that we already expect employers to use in their hiring decisions? If we tolerate employers using whether our shoes are shined or whether we hold the handshake appropriately long as indicators of future job performance, then surely there’s nothing strange about them using our grammatical competence. At least grammar shows up in every interaction, face-to-face or electronic. So if I may damn with faint praise, a grammar test probably isn’t worse than most of the other assessment methods employers use.

Thus I’m not going to condemn his use of a grammar test, but rather his method of using it: he’s an adherent to Truss’s Zero Tolerance approach.

Zero Tolerance might be a valid enforcement approach to matters like murder, where the delineation between “okiedokie” and “not okiedokie” is obvious.* But grammar simply isn’t one of those things, or at least it isn’t when you’re talking about what most people mean when they refer to “grammar”. I think we can all agree that The CEO are mistaken is wrong, but no native speaker is going to say that’s okay. Instead, what Wiens appears to be concerned with is pretty much just spelling, as Geoff Pullum notes. That’s fairly settled if you assume that all test-takers use Standard American English spellings (so no favourite, cancelled, etc.).**

But Wiens undermines his own intolerance in his post, where he uses some “debatable” constructions and includes links on each of them to justify their use. They’re things that any reasonable person ought to know are fine, like starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending a clause with a preposition.

Good for him, I say, but Zero Tolerance doesn’t accept explanations for deviations from its norm. That’s kind of the definition of Zero Tolerance: when confronting a possible error, don’t seek out explanations or rationales, just mark it wrong. There is no excuse that can justify deviation from the norm. Anything less than that is playing fast and loose with the term “Zero Tolerance”. And if we’re doing that, then I’m Zero Tolerance, too, in that I only accept usages that are standard or that can be reasonably justified as a dialectal difference or a reasonable/useful extension of current norms.

A real Zero Tolerancer wouldn’t be interested in the facts that Wiens marshals in favor of his choice; everything is black-and-white. If questions about split infinitives or final-prepositions were on such a test, Wiens would fail. It doesn’t matter that he’s right, he’s justified, and he’s seeking out relevant information to explain his decision-making. These all sound like good qualities for an employee, yet Wiens would be, to the Zero Tolerancer, inattentive and unemployable. Quite simply, Wiens is aware of a grey area even as he’s arguing for a black-and-white view.

Lastly, though it’s downright hackneyed to point out when a Zero Tolerancer makes a mistake, it is at the same time essential. As Dan of Our Bold Hero notes, Wiens failed to put a hyphen in the compound verb grammar test, and he falls into the same unhyphenated trap as Truss did by not hyphenating zero tolerance as a prenominal adjective. Were we Zero Tolerancers, his post would already be in the dustbin.

*: Even this isn’t clear enough, as evidenced by the distinction between murder and manslaughter and the various levels of each. As you might have guessed, I don’t believe in Zero Tolerance for anything.

**: Though in both of these cases, typos and thinkos still happen, and Zero Tolerance is unwilling to forgive this. As a result, employees of a philosophically-committed-to-ZT company will have to waste a lot of time proofreading even the quickest correspondence to make sure that not a single mistake makes it through.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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