Monday, June 08, 2009

Too Cool For Grammar School

One of my mother's pet peeves is improper grammar, most potently using the phrase "I should have went" instead of the correct phrase "I should have gone." A couple of day ago, she read me an opinion piece by someone who shared her frustration, arguing grammar mistakes (even in casual conversation) demonstrate sloppy thinking, laziness, and a disrespect for the English language. I conceded that for instances such as job interviews, this makes sense: good grammar signals intelligence and etiquette. But something about the story didn't sit well with me and I let it go.

Later, I realized bad grammar is also an example of countersignaling. When you can send multiple signals, you are best to eschew weak signals and stick with strong ones, demonstrating that you are not be confused with those who are merely adequate (as average candidates will send the weak signals in case the strong ones aren't as strong as they think). This is why you don't put that part time job from high school on your post-college resume.

Good grammar is a weak signal (with the exception of, perhaps, English professors). By making (purposely or not) common grammar mistakes, people can show they are so qualified, they don't need obsess over the nuances of the English language. This, of course, does not work with rare mistakes. "I is interested in working with you" will not get you the job.


Anonymous said...

I strongly disagree. Having the choice of doing something wrong or right doing it wrong makes no sense. The only possible exception I can see is with poetry or lyrics to make the scan come out right. And, of course, there is always ignorance.

Jason said...

I have to disagree. As George Carlin said, "Let's all use the language we agreed upon." and grammar is part of the language. Making common mistakes can go unnoticed. But when they are noticed it may send signals that you're just average instead of good. Which impression would you rather give? I don't just mean in an interview, I mean in life.

Using proper grammar can cut down on misunderstandings. I would think that as someone who puts so much importance on contracts you would understand the need for accurate comprehension for all parties.

Using proper grammar conveys professionalism. I don't see how you can say it's a weak signal. Your argument of "so qualified, they don't need obsess over the nuances of the English language" is, honestly, laughable. In the real world, details matter. If you speak properly then it shows that you do care about the details and will be professional. That is what will get you the job.

Using proper grammar in an interview is like putting on a suit and being on your best behavior. If someone came to you for a job wearing casual work clothes, would you say they are so qualified that they don't need to obsess over the nuances of business style?


David said...

It's a weak signal because most people don't know these rules, as opposed to a suit which is obvious from the moment you walk in the door. That's why I said it doesn't work for all grammar; saying "I is hard working" would be a strong signal. "I should have went" is a weak one.

Most grammar mistakes don't change the meaning of language, which is why so many of us aren't terribly dedicated to learn them. Indeed, grammar mistakes which change the meaning of the sentence are so rare, the ones that do inspired a book title (Eats, Shoots and Leaves). This article on the subject is quite excellent as well.

Jason said...

Again I have to disagree. We may not know all the grammar rules but I think we are aware of what's proper grammar and what isn't on some level. In your example, "should have went" may be acceptable, but I think more people recognize "should have gone" as being more proper. As long as you're not a jerk about proper grammar, I believe using proper grammar does provide an edge, however slight.

You should look at the comments in the article. Early on several people note that when grammar matters, it REALLY matters and when it comes to technical writing poor grammar does change the meaning of the sentence. Medical records were mentioned at least twice. Someone also suggested the musical "My Fair Lady" and I suggest to you as well.

(From the blog you linked to)
"Find me a sentence with the wrong version of it’s that you can’t understand due to the error. Wait. No. Forget it. Because you can’t."

The doctor examined the patient with an injured eye.

Who has the injured eye? Hmmm looks like I can find such a sentence. That was pretty easy. It was an example we used in my college AI class about why it's difficult for computers to understand human speech.

As a teacher, you are responsible for clearly communicating your lessons. Do you honestly think that poor grammar won't affect anything?

David said...

You're missing the point, Jason. Most grammar mistakes most of the time don't matter. We can cite exceptions all day (and if you gather them together in one place, you might be fooled into thinking they're common), but the reality is it doesn't really matter. Part of the reason is context (which, granted, the author didn't make clear). The meaning surrounding your example sentence changes based on context, and when you add context it's obvious.

The other part of the story pertains to the area the author's actually interested in: humans are quite good at grammar without thinking about it. And the reason we are, I'd wager, is practice. The sentence you cite seems awkward to me, because it's unclear. So we learn to be clear (the point of language, after all, is to communicate) which sometimes means we follow grammar rules. But in cases where meaning remains clear, despite bad grammar, we tend to ignore them because they serve no practical function (or rarely do). That's why I emphasize grammar rules which most people don't know is a weak signal.

Anonymous said...

Law, Legislation and Lunacy, is a good title for this discussion. Law has a 'reasonable man standard' for most situations. Legislation would be the codified grammar rules, which are nice to be able to ignor at times. And Lunacy, well, we are all guilty of that from time to time.


Jason said...

I asked my boss about proper grammar and he agreed with me. Proper English is always appropiate in a business setting. It helps marks a person as being a professional. So at the least it's a positive signal or no signal at all.

If people don't notice when you make common grammar mistakes, then they won't notice when you get it right either. So most of the time it doesn't matter. Those times where it is noticed, using proper English can only be seen as a positive.

As for my example, the challenge said nothing about context. It was to find a sentence where the meaning changes when proper grammar is applied. In that manner I have succeeded.