A Stiff Sentence

Are you and me learning proper grammar anymore?

According to Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal, chances are that, no, we’re not. “Managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace,” she wrote recently, and this “can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communications errors.”

At the same time, Shellenbarger noted, some companies just don’t care. Jason Grimes, vice president of product marketing at RescueTime, told her that getting your point across honestly is more important than getting it across with polish. “Those who can be sincere, and still text and Twitter and communicate on Facebook—those are the ones who are going to succeed,” Grimes said.

These two contrasting views of the importance (or non-importance) of grammar go back thousands of years. In A Functioning Society, Peter Drucker pointed out that Socrates believed that “the only function of knowledge is self-knowledge, that is, the intellectual, moral and spiritual growth of the person,” while Protagoras, an opponent, held that “knowledge meant logic, grammar and rhetoric.” The core of what for centuries was considered a “liberal education” was based primarily on the latter.

“They’re hanging their jackets there.” Image source: Echo-Lit

As a writer, Drucker valued clarity of thought and expression, and he certainly abided by the rules of good grammar and syntax. But his view of their importance was idiosyncratic. He considered a “general education” to be essential, but, he asked, what is “general” and what is “specialized”?

There is nothing more specialized . . . than Anglo-Saxon grammar,” Drucker pointed out in The Landmarks of Tomorrow. “Electronic circuitry, however, is a most general subject integrating a good deal of physics, technology, mathematics, logic, theory of perception and information theory. Yet the first would usually be classified as general education, the other as specialized or technical training.”

Ultimately, Drucker considered it natural that grammar was becoming less of a focus in school, something he observed already in a 1957 article for Harper’s Magazine. “Despite the anguished pleas of teachers and parents, we talk less and less about ‘grammar’—the study of parts of speech—and more and more about ‘communication,’” he wrote. “It is the whole of speech, including not only the words left unsaid but the atmosphere in which words are said and heard, that ‘communicates.’”

What do you think: How much does—or should—grammar matter in the workplace of today and tomorrow?