Why grammar matters in business

The author invokes the Harvard Business Review and a Grammarly study in touting impeccable syntax, smart punctuation, and other linguistic propriety.

I assume everyone understands how important gaffe-free business writing is, much as my dentist figures her patients should appreciate the value of flossing.

The fact that my dentist has to remind me at every visit suggests I should not assume everyone gets my point.

Grammar can be as tedious as flossing. Worse, you have to pay way more attention than I do while massaging my gums during the late news.

I have to not only remind people about the grammar rules that still matter, but also back up my advice with quotes from esteemed authorities, in this case the Harvard Business Review, which has lately been on a roll about grammar and business.

It all started last year when Kyle Wiens wrote the provocatively titled “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar.

He had me at the first paragraph: “If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.”

Thousands commented, many criticizing his elitist attitude and lack of supporting data.

So Brad Hoover, grand master of the grammar and proofreading program Grammarly, searched for support by reviewing 100 LinkedIn profiles. He found that professionals with fewer grammar errors achieved higher positions and that fewer grammar errors meant more promotions. Impressive, though somewhat tautologous, a term I’m sliding in for anyone who wanders over from Harvard.

Bryan A. Garner, author of HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, also chimed in. He urged readers to strictly adhere to subject/predicate agreement rules, which people often ignore with little loss of understanding, and double negatives, a mistake I rarely see from professionals.

In another post, he advised business people to keep their readers awake by using contractions such as we’re (bravo!) and skillfully balancing the use of personal pronouns I, you, and we, tilted more to the wanna-be Ivy league alum side than me. He also repeated the dental floss-like advice to avoid the passive voice and acronyms.

So you see, I’m in good company. Grammar matters. In my book, course, and posts I focus on the mistakes that I’ve seen most often in my 30 years’ business writing experience and my social media observations.

In earlier posts, I aimed at the top grammar offenders, much as the military would shoot at the most threatening targets. Here they are:

I except its’ offer?

Me, I and myself

That, who or which

He, she and they

Thank you, Harvard Business Review, for adding weight to my assumption that good grammar makes you look professional. Even though our emphasis may be different because of our audiences, we agree on the fundamentals. Like flossing, techniques may vary, but the results are almost the same.

As Kyle wrote: “Grammar is my litmus test. All applicants say they’re detail-oriented; I just make my employees prove it.”

Now that you’ve heard from pedigreed experts—and me—which grammar rule do you think is the most important for business success?

Barb Sawyers helps people write to connect and get results through her book and online course, Write Like You Talk Only Better. A version of this article originally appeared on her blog, Sticky Communication.

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