“Good grammar is like personal hygiene. You can ignore it if you want, but don’t be surprised when people draw their conclusions.”
I came across that quote several years ago as part of a handout given to those attending a journalism-related conference.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it got my attention back then, and still does today.
So, yes, this column will be about the importance of grammar.
And, yes, I need to quickly point out that I make grammatical mistakes, too. Journalists aren’t immune from making errors relating to proper grammar, but I would suggest that we make fewer of them than the average person.
It’s because learning sentence structure, grammar and what’s known as Associated Press style is part of a journalist’s training. Ideally, that begins in high school in English and composition classes. But I fear it’s becoming less of an emphasis in schools these days.
I base that, anecdotally, on examples of writing that I see from high school and other teachers. Too often, they include basic grammatical mistakes — like not properly using “its” versus “it’s” or the wrong version of “there,” “their” or “they’re.”
But I also know that teachers and schools these days are asked and required to cover so much more than in decades past.
In that sense, it’s not surprising that grammar doesn’t receive as much attention and time as it once did in the classroom.
It’s also only fair to point out that even the Associated Press news cooperative — which is supposed to be the gatekeeper and standard-bearer for proper grammar — has been negatively impacted.
We see stories provided by the Associated Press with grammatical errors or inconsistencies with AP style.
Yes, the AP reporters and editors are human, too, so we must allow for that.
The bigger concern is what I see as a dumbing down trend being allowed by the AP and journalism colleges.
Here’s just one example: For many years, journalism students were taught the difference between “over” and “more than” because they don’t mean the same thing. “Over” implies a spatial relationship — something is physically “over” something else. “More than” means what it says.
Now, is it a catastrophic error if the two are incorrectly used? Of course not. Perhaps that’s why the AP has loosened its standards on “over” and “more than,” along with similar kinds of examples, in recent years. But it does make for more imprecise writing and understanding.
So, that concludes my minor rant on grammar and language instruction today. I feel much better.
Let me close with another quote from that same journalism conference handout:
“If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use ‘it’s,’ then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.”
Amen to that.