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I’d presumed it’s trivial to show that good grammar can improve your chances of success — not that good grammar is an indication of ability, but merely that having good grammar skills lends an appearance of credibility and competence that may or may not be backed up with actual skills for the task at hand. I strongly suspect, for instance, that a resume written in accordance with the basic rules of English grammar will be more likely to bring its writer an interview, all else being equal. Rather like legacy status in an application to an Ivy League school — except with an at-least-tenuous link to ability — I’ve imagined it serves as a little bonus.*

But having recently seen a few ham-handed attempts at this yield results approximately as convincing as a child’s insistence that their imaginary friend was the one who knocked over the vase, I’m beginning to re-think my presumption.

For instance, I’ve recently found this terrible post and infographic from Grammarly that purports to show that — well, it’s a little hard to say, because they’ve managed to write 500-some words without ever having a clear thesis. The infographic reports the grammatical error rates for three pairs of competing companies, and juxtaposes this with corporate data on the three pairs, presumably to look for correlations between the two.

I believe their claim is that fewer grammar mistakes are made by more successful companies. That’s a pretty weak claim, seeing as it doesn’t even require causation. We’d see this pattern if greater success led to improved grammar, perhaps by having money to hire editors; we’d see it if better grammar increased the company’s performance; we’d see it if the two were caused by an unobserved third variable. That said, the study won’t even find evidence for this tepid claim, and perhaps that is why they carefully fail to make the claim explicit.

The post tells the reader that “major errors undermine the brand’s credibility” and that investors “may judge” them for it, but even these weak statements are watered down by the concluding paragraphs. This restraint from overstating their case is hardly laudable; it’s clear that the reader is intended to look at these numbers and colors, this subtle wrinkled-paper background on the infographic, and draw the conclusion that Grammarly has stopped short of: you need a (i.e., their) grammar checker or you will lose market share!**

[The infographic's conclusion]

The only testable claim in the infographic’s conclusion (“they must demonstrate accurate writing!”) isn’t borne out by the 1500 pixels preceding it.

It might not seem worth bothering with a breakdown of the bad science going on in this infographic. Alas, the results were uncritically echoed in a Forbes blog post, and the conclusions were only strengthened in the re-telling. So let’s look at exactly why this analysis fails to establish anything more than that people will see proof of their position in any inconclusive data.

Let’s start by looking at the data underpinning the experiment. The company took 400 (!) words from the most recent LinkedIn postings (!) of three (!) pairs (!) of competing multinational corporations. We’re not even looking at the equivalent of a single college admission essay from each company, in an age where companies are producing more publicly consumable text than ever before.

Not to mention, I looked at the LinkedIn posts from Coke, one of the companies tested. Nine of their last ten posts were, in their entirety: “The Coca-Cola Company is hiring: [position] in [location]”. The tenth was “Coke Studio makes stars out of singers in India [link]”. How do you assess grammaticality from such data?

Awesome Data, Great Jobs!

Awesome Data, Great Jobs!

Well, let’s suppose the data is appropriate and see what results we get from it. Remember: the hypothesis is that lower error rates are correlated with higher corporate success (e.g., market share, revenue). Do we see that in the head-to-head comparisons?

  • The first comparison is between Coke and Pepsi. Pepsi has more errors than Coke, and, fitting the hypothesis, Coke has a higher market share! But Pepsi has higher revenues, as the infographic notes (and then dismisses because it doesn’t fit the narrative). So we start with inconclusive data.
  • The second comparison is between Google and Facebook. Google makes fewer errors and has higher corporate success. Let’s take this one at face value: evidence in favor.
  • The third comparison is between Ford and GM. Ford makes fewer errors but is worse on every financial metric than GM. “However, these numbers are close”, the infographic contends. Evidence against.

So we have three comparisons. In one, which company is more successful is ambiguous. The two “decisive” comparisons are split. The data is literally equal in favor and in opposition to the conclusion. It is insulting that anyone could present such an argument and ask someone to believe it. If a student handed this in as an assignment, I would fail them without hesitation.***

What’s richest about this to me is that the central conceit of this study is that potential consumers will judge poor grammar skills as indicative of poor capability as a company. I’ve never found convincing evidence that bad grammar is actually indicative of poor ability outside of writing; the construction crew that put together my house probably don’t know when whom can be used, but my house is a lot more stable than it would be if Lynne Truss and I were the ones cobbling it together. But for all those people out there saying that good grammar is indicative of good logic, this clearly runs counter to that claim. Grammarly’s showing itself incapable of making an reasoned argument or marshalling evidence to support a claim, yet their grammar is fine. How are poor logic skills not a more damning inability than poor grammar skills, especially when “poor grammar” often means mistakenly writing between you and I?

The Kyle Wienses out there will cluck their tongues and think “I would never hire someone with bad grammar”, without even thinking that they’ve unquestioningly swallowed far worse logic. Sure enough, the Forbes post generated exactly the comments you’d expect:

“I figuratively cringe whenever grammar worthy of decayed shower scum invades my reading; it makes you wonder just how careful the company is of other corporate aspects (oh, gee, I don’t know, say, quality as well)”

With comments like that, maybe these people are getting the company that best reflects them: superficial and supercilious, concerned more with window-dressing to appear intelligent than with actually behaving intelligently.

*: I, of course, don’t mean that being obsessive about different than or something is relevant, but rather higher-level things like subject-verb agreement or checking sentence structures.

**: Though Grammarly makes an automated grammar checker, it wasn’t used to assemble this data. Nor was it run on this data, so we don’t know if it would even provide a solution to help out these grammatically deficient brands.

***: I don’t mean to imply that this would be convincing if only the data were better and all three comparisons went the right way. There’s no statistical analysis, not even a whiff of it, and there’s no way you could convince me of any conclusion from this experiment as currently devised. But at least if the comparisons went the right way, I could understand jumping the gun and saying you’ve found evidence. As it is, it’s imagining a gun just to try to jump it.

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.

Let’s kick off the review session by addressing a confusion that will get you relentlessly and uninterestingly mocked: homophonic pairs. These are pairs like your and you’re or affect and effect, which are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Even if you know the difference between them, you’re still going to screw them up occasionally, especially in quick emails or when you’re writing with your attention wandering. (I probably type the wrong one about 1% of the time, which doesn’t sound like too much until you think about how often one of these words gets used.)

I’m going to look at a subset of these homophonic pairs here, the ones where one member of the pair is a contraction. These are the aforementioned your/you’re, as well as their/there/they’re, its/it’s, and whose/who’s.

In all four of these cases, the word with the apostrophe is the one that can be written as two words. You’re is the contraction for you are, they’re is they are, it’s is it is, and who’s is who is. Thus:

(1a) Do you mind if I dance with your date?
(1b) It seems you’re [you are] offended for some reason.

(2a) I think those tourists left their suitcases behind.
(2b) Yup, those suitcases over there.
(2c) Let’s see if they’re [they are] full of money.

(3a) I couldn’t open the suitcase because its lock was too strong.
(3b) I know, it’s [it is] a shame.

(4a) Do you know anyone whose skill set includes lock-picking?
(4b) Wait, who’s [who is] a cop?

Pretty straightforward, right? The words with the apostrophes are always contractions of two words, a pronoun and a form of the verb be. The words without apostrophes are possessives (and also the locative there). It seems like you ought to just remember apostrophes = two words, no apostrophes = possessives. Easy peasy.

But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard? The trouble is that these homophones don’t exist in a vacuum, and the rest of English exists to sow confusion. When you think of forming a possessive, no doubt your first thought is of the apostrophe-s. That’s because most (singular) nouns are made possessive with apostrophe-s: rabbit’s foot, someone else’s fault, etc. As a result, it’s and who’s look possessive even though they’re not.

The trick is that (personal) pronouns never use apostrophe-s in their possessive forms; in fact, many of them don’t even use an s.* They have their own special forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. If you remember that pronouns don’t take apostrophe-s, then its/it’s and whose/who’s are a lot easier to decide between.

Another way to think about it is that only one member of the pair can have the apostrophe (otherwise there’d be no confusion). And connecting two contracted words needs an apostrophe more than signalling possession does. Since there’s only one apostrophe to go around, the contraction gets it over the possessive.**

Summary: If your and you’re or it’s and its are confusing you, remember that contractions always have an apostrophe, and possessive pronouns never do.

*: Never say never. Impersonal (one) and indefinite (e.g., everybody) pronouns do take apostrophe-s. Luckily, these ones don’t have as prominent of homophones and don’t cause many problems for writers.

**: Of course, that’s merely a mnemonic. There is no rule of English that says this, and the historical development that led to pronomial possessives not having apostrophes was not a result of this.

goofy recently posted at bradshaw of the future about momentarily and some strange advice Grammar Girl sent out about it. Her advice:

“Don’t use momentarily to mean “in a moment”; you may confuse people. If you mean in a moment, say or write that. There’s no need to use momentarily in such cases, and doing so will irritate language purists.”

A quick note first: both the “in a moment” and “for a moment” meanings of momentarily have been around for 140 years, so the purists are completely unjustified in their complaint. Also, sure, there’s no need to use momentarily here, but then, there’s no need to ever use any given word. You can always paraphrase or re-write the sentence.

But the real question is two-fold: whether the benefits of using a questionable word outweighs its costs, and whether there’s a better word. You might think of this as a satisficing condition and an optimization condition.* And I suspect — although I don’t know if anyone’s studying this, or what they’ve found — that there’s some sort of a switch-off between the two methods depending on what production task you’re doing. When speed is one’s primary concern, presumably it’s sufficient to check that the word is beneficial; only when one has the luxury of time does full optimization kick in.

So is momentarily costly — i.e., will it confuse readers? goofy makes a good point about the potential confusion:

“If it’s more common for people to use momentarily to mean ‘in a moment’, then why advise people not to use it that way? It seems that Grammar Girl is essentially saying ‘don’t speak like everyone else in your speech community speaks.’ This seems counterproductive. […] it might confuse people – but if most people already use it that way, why should it be confusing?”

He gives the example of a pilot saying “we’ll land momentarily”, and notes that no one except for an uncooperative speaker will think “that means ‘for a moment’!” But one might harbor doubts. Maybe no one will end up with that interpretation, but maybe they’ll be distracted by it during interpretation. Yeah, that’s certainly possible — but listeners are more adept at ignoring irrelevant ambiguities that we tend to give them credit for.

The famous example from introductory linguistics classes of this is Time flies like an arrow. The first time someone sees this sentence, it just sounds like a standard aphorism, and the only meaning they’re likely to seriously consider is “time moves in a swift manner, akin to an arrow”. But this sentence is ambiguous, of course, as almost all sentences are. Many of the words have different senses and different parts of speech that they can take on.

If we switch from a Noun-Verb-Preposition reading of time flies like to an Noun-Noun-Verb one, we get: “‘Time flies’ (as opposed to houseflies or gadflies) appreciate an arrow”. There’s also a Verb-Noun-Preposition reading, yielding an imperative: “as though you were an arrow, record the time the flies take to complete a task”. There are other interpretations, too, but none of these is likely enough, given our world-knowledge and parsing probabilities, to register in our minds. We can reasonably expect that Time flies like an arrow will be correctly understood, without time lost to alternative interpretations, by any audience that isn’t actively looking for implausible interpretations.

So too should we expect momentarily to be correctly understood; claiming to have difficulty with it marks the complainer, not the speaker, as the one who doesn’t understand language. As an editor, one generally ought to foolproof writing, looking for and eliminating potential (even if fairly unlikely) misinterpretations. But there’s a difference between editing to protect fools from ambiguity and editing to protect uncooperative readers from ambiguity. The former is difficult, but generally doable. The latter is often simple, but generally worthless.**

Let me conclude with a good question from Jonathon Owen in the comments on goofy’s post:

“And if the problem is simply that purists will be annoyed, why not direct our efforts to teaching the purists not to be annoyed rather than teaching everyone else to avoid offending this very small but very vocal set of peevers?”

*: “Satisificing” is an idea I’m fond of, though one that doesn’t get talked about much outside of human decision-making tasks. In the familiar optimization strategy, you’re trying to find the best of all possible options, whereas a satisficing strategy is just looking for any option that’s better than some threshold. For instance, if you go to the store with two dollars and need to buy milk, you can optimize by comparing multiple sub-$2 cartons before picking the best of that lot, or you can employ a satisifice by buying the first carton that costs less than two dollars.

Satisificing is generally faster and, if I remember my undergrad psych classes correctly, is common in human decision-making processes, especially when time is of the essence.

**: One exception, presumably, is in legal writing/contracts.

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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 an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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