On table manners and spelling errors: How we use grammar to discriminate

Recently, I’ve come across a number of articles by self-proclaimed language experts trying to sell business leaders on the idea that being aware of their current and potential employees’ grammar and spelling is important.  This article calls written language problems “an epidemic in the workplace” .  This one reports one man tweeting that he is “shocked at the rampant illiteracy”.  In this one, the author proudly announces he has a “zero tolerance approach” for job applicants whose language he disapproves of.   This one includes such apparently shocking examples as a former Yahoo! CEO’s alleged tendency to forego capitalizing letters in his emails.

It’s hard to disagree that employees who will be involved in written communication as part of their work should have good writing skills.  Here’s the issue though.  What are we talking about when we say “good writing skills”?  I took an inventory of the specific complaints that the authors of the above articles made about people’s language and tried to categorize them.  Of course, there was plenty of discussion of non-specific “errors” and “poor writing” that these authors had had to endure.  However, the following are the only specific linguistic issues that were mentioned in the five articles I looked at.  I mark sentences, phrases, or words that the authors would call “wrong” with an asterisk (*):


  • Misplacing commas
  • Not using the Oxford comma
  • Not knowing what an apostrophe is (presumably also not using them appropriately)
  • Not knowing what a semi-colon is (presumably also not using them appropriately)
  • Failing to capitalize appropriately

Grammatical agreement:

  • Using “there’s” followed by something plural (for example, *There’s a lot of people here)
  • Not using “is” and “are” accurately (for example, *We is here)
  • Failing to use proper pronoun case (for example, *for John and I)

Homophones (spelling)

  • Failing to distinguish between “to” and “too” (presumably also “two”)
  • Failing to distinguish between “its” and “it’s”
  • Failing to distinguish between “their” and “they’re” (presumably also “there”)

Words that are allegedly not words:

  • Using *irregardless (for “regardless”)

Purportedly overused words:

  • Using “like” too frequently

Idiomatic language:

  • Using *I could care less (instead of “I couldn’t care less”)

Things we’re apparently not allowed to use:

  • Using passive voice, for example “Passive voice was used in this sentence” and not “Someone did not use passive voice in this sentence”

So let’s take a look over what apparently constitutes this linguistic “epidemic”.  A number of these complaints are silly. Whether or not an employee uses the Oxford comma (a comma before the final item in a list of three or more) is hardly a cause for any type of concern or any indicator of lack of grammatical knowledge.  The idea that passive voice should not be used is just plain absurd and based on a misunderstanding of what passive is in the first place.  Geoffrey Pullum does a fantastic job of explaining where this frequently repeated rule comes from and why you should ignore anyone who tells you to avoid passive voice (including Microsoft Word’s grammar check).

Some of the issues that the authors point out are part of the natural process of language variation.  Different groups of English speakers use English differently (and for that matter you can insert any other language into this sentence).  Young people have been reported to use “like” in sentences like this: “She was like ‘I don’t care’ and I was like…” more frequently than older people.  People have negative attitudes about this.  When we hear sentences like the one above, we imagine young girls having superficial conversations (although there’s nothing about the phrase itself that would prevent us from saying “She was like ‘decoherent histories quantum theory is reformulated with the assumption that there is one ‘real’ fine-grained history, specified in a preferred complete set of sum-over-histories variables’ [sentence taken from here]”).  The use of “she was like” here is simply a trigger for our bad attitudes toward young women (it’s also simultaneously a phrase that helps to show that these young people belong within a group of young people).  The same thing is true of phrases like “we is” or “they is”.  Many dialects of English (not coincidentally the ones spoken by people who have been historically oppressed, for example, African Americans) use these phrases.  We hear “you is” and think that the person is uneducated, poor, and perhaps not White.  However, this is simply the manner in which many groups speak.  The only thing “wrong” here is that it doesn’t conform to the way White, middle-class people speak (in fact, in the case of using “is” for “am” and “are”, this is arguably a more elegant and efficient system than the cumbersome “I am”, “you are”, “it is”, etc.).

Most of what is left in the lists above has to do specifically with people’s ability to write according to “standard” conventions of spelling and punctuation.  There are pretty clear rules that govern these things (with the very important exception of commas).  Businesses are right to be concerned that employees are using “it’s” where “its” is expected.  They’re right to do so, because as many of the articles point out they may be perceived poorly or have their credibility damaged if they do not.  However, that’s not to say that people’s negative attitudes are justified.  In trying to rationalize their concern with grammar, the discourse around grammar in business has gone too far in a number of ways.  Breaking the rules of spelling and punctuation is breaking a social convention.  It’s like not knowing which fork is used for your salad.  If you know this information, it’s because someone taught it to you (or you looked it up or found out somehow).  You did not summon your great intellectual prowess to solve the great puzzle of the essence of the fork.  The same is true of knowing whether to use “their”, “they’re”, or “there”.

The authors of the articles I’ve read (and they are by no means alone) want us to believe, however, that the things in the list above tell us more about a person than just that they have never learned or been taught which one is the salad fork.  Here’s a list of things that they want you to think and why you should be both skeptical and frankly pretty appalled.

1.  People with “good” grammar are better communicators

While I wouldn’t claim that grammar is irrelevant to communication, I can safely say that none of the things on the list above is likely to contribute to true breakdowns in communication (though I would concede that one or more very strangely placed commas could cause difficulty in reading).  Sure there are funny internet memes (like the one below) about how, without the Oxford comma, your whole intended meaning is obscured.  However, far from being good arguments in favor of the Oxford comma’s communicative utility, these cartoons make it clear that the stakes in this argument are low since no one would ever earnestly interpret the sentence in the way suggested by the second picture.


Before buying the argument that “good” grammar makes you a good communicator, we should think carefully about what it means to communicate well.  When I think of good communicators, I think of people who actively listen to what the other person is saying, who make efforts to clarify misunderstandings, and who are generally aware of and sensitive to other people’s social needs.  Notice I didn’t say anything about semi-colons.  Misusing a semi-colon will not lead to people not understanding the information you intend to convey to them.  What it may do is trigger an unwarranted negative attitude or a judgment about your intelligence.

2.  People with “good” grammar are more intelligent

Many of the authors of the articles I’ve read have interpreted sentences like “*Its too bad I used the wrong homophone” as a sign of low critical thinking ability or intellectual aptitude.  As one author puts it, “Knowing how to structure a grammatically correct sentence is typically a signal that you are able to analyze and explain other complex problems as well”.

This is a rather ideologically selective interpretation of reality.  First of all, the author claims that following rules like the ones I listed above are somehow “complex problems” that require analysis to figure out.  However, the rules the authors point to (listed above) are not learned and applied through analysis.  At best, we can provide post hoc explanations for why “their” is used one way and “there” is used another.  However, there’s no general principle that we have failed to discover if we don’t use these two accurately.  For example, it’s not the case that any time a sequence of sounds has two different meanings (or two different words if you’d prefer), then we should spell it differently.  If this were the case, then we’d have river banks and Baenk of America.  There are logical ways to help us remember that “its” and “it’s” are used in different contexts, but at the end of the day, it’s an arbitrary social convention.

The author’s suggestion that knowledge and application of these rules is connected to intelligence is like suggesting that knowledge and application of the rules for how to “properly” hold a tea cup is an issue of inherent intelligence.  Not holding your tea cup “properly” is not a signal of your lack of intelligence; it’s a signal that you don’t really belong in the social circle you’re currently being judged by (because you don’t have “the proper upbringing”).

3.  People with “good” grammar are just all-around better employees

The authors also suggest that “good” grammar has a direct connection to general work abilities or work ethic.  One author states that “I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”  Perhaps if you know about the rules that I’ve listed above and you fail to apply them because you are being careless, then there might be some connection with just general carelessness.  However, I doubt that it’s as simple as that.  In addition, there is most certainly no connection between not having been taught the rules above or using English in a way that does not conform to these rules and stocking shelves effectively.

So why is this a big deal?  Why should we be mindful of this type of discourse?  These articles are all written by influential people writing in influential outlets.  They’re using their power to try to influence employers to make employment decisions based upon a narrow idea of what makes “good writing” or “good grammar”.  They are actively advocating that employers ignore job applications from applicants who commit “errors” (I put this word in quotation marks since some of the things above are clearly either dialect differences or are just different stylistic choices) of the type listed above.  They’re justifying this suggestion using an ideology that presents these “errors” as indicative of lower communicative, cognitive, and all-around work-related capacity.

We might think that if everyone who wanted a job badly enough just took their advice and learned the rules, then they’d get the job they deserve.  That’s certainly practical advice for individuals who want to work within an ultimately unfair system to follow (advice that I would definitely give to anyone seeking a job).  However, here’s the bigger problem.  Much like knowing which fork is the salad fork and how to hold your tea cup “properly”, the grammar rules that I listed above are not equally distributed in society.  It’s not a coincidence that you’re more likely to have been taught these rules (or in some cases simply acquired them from those around you) if you are from a privileged, White, English monolingual background.  Likewise, if you’re not from this background, you’re more likely to have either learned to do things differently (for example, to say “you is”) or to have never learned these things at all.  As sociolinguist Rosina Lippi-Green puts it, language is “the last widely open backdoor to discrimination”.

So the next time you see a sentence like “*their’s a couple of things that might annoy you in this sentence”, keep in mind that your knee-jerk judgments about the person’s intelligence and work ethic are misleading.  If you’re in a position to make decisions about employment and you see an application with these “errors”, try to look beyond them and consider whether there are more important qualities that really do signal work ethic and competence.  Remember that you’re not somehow more intelligent than the person next to you because you know when to put your napkin in your lap.  Luckily for you, you had access to a socially valued set of table manners.  In the same manner, you’re not automatically more intelligent because you don’t commit any of the “errors” in the list above.  As another blogger explained, you’re just more privileged.

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Posted in Prescriptivism and language prejudice
10 comments on “On table manners and spelling errors: How we use grammar to discriminate
  1. Kai says:

    I worked with someone from a non-White, privileged, English monolingual background who frequently used “you is” and “we is”. It was interesting, though, because she explained to me when I pointed out her style of grammar that she was tough very strictly the ‘standard’ use of grammar by her father in California, but when she moved to Baltimore all her friends and classmates would make fun of her ‘perfect’ grammar. I thought it was interesting how her grammar changed in different social context. She is doing quite well in the retail workplace I met her and I didn’t see her style of grammar inhibit her in any way.

  2. nsubtirelu says:

    Hey Kai, that’s a really interesting case you have there. It kind of shows the power of ‘nonstandard’ language for identifying with a certain group. I like it also because it shows that the person is not being lazy; she’s being strategic!

  3. manderso4 says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post! I will be honest and own up to the fact that before moving out of my hometown Midwestern state, I was one of those people who judged people on their spelling/grammar. Since I have lived in cities with majority ESL learners, I have broadened my perspective. I still think it is important to use proper grammar (especially if you work with children), but it shouldn’t be the only basis of judgment.

  4. nsubtirelu says:

    manderso4, I appreciate your honest thoughts. I think it’s not an easy process emotionally or cognitively to change the way we see things like language especially when we’ve been socialized so strongly into them. I think one thing that I may not have been very clear about in this post is the fact that many of the things that are referred to by the other authors I’m referencing (and maybe you mean to talk about when you say “proper” grammar) are best put into different categories. Since to my knowledge there’s not really a group of people who systematically use “its” and “it’s” (or any of the other homophone issues) in a way that differs from the written “standard”, it’s probably safe to talk about issues like this one in terms of correctness or incorrectness. However, we need to make a clear distinction between those issues, which we could label harmless and minor errors, and things that are dialect differences or stylistic choices, which I don’t think have anything to do with “proper” or “improper” or “correct” or “incorrect”. In these cases (like the agreement issues or the use of “like” that I listed above), people are actively and intentionally using these elements of language to make meanings in their groups. Saying that those things are “improper” is essentially saying that the person doesn’t use their own language adequately or that the group they belong to is not good enough. Given that people’s individual and group identities are largely conveyed through and signaled from the language they use, you can imagine how hurtful this would be if you were on the receiving end of such criticism. Indeed, while I would definitely agree that people who are going to teach children how to write should probably be well-socialized into English spelling practices, I’m much more wary of suggesting that those same people should only use a powerful dialect of English. Indeed, there are a number of questions that come to mind with that type of suggestion. First and foremost, do children even necessarily use language the way their teachers (and other relevant adults) speak, or are they more likely to begin to use the language of their peers (as a means of fitting in)? Another related question would be are we always doing people a favor by insisting they use “proper” grammar? Are there circumstances where “proper” grammar is stigmatized?

  5. Thanks for coming by my blog. I really like the way you discuss discrimination and linguistic signals. Language is always used as a dividing line in society, a clear way to descriminate between “us” and “them.” Do you think language is just another way to descriminate, or is linguistic descrimination somehow unique?

  6. nsubtirelu says:

    Hey, you’re welcome for the site visit! I really appreciated your post on how you and your family will take on learning Somali (link for anyone who is interested, http://lovinglanguage.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/a-family-somali-language-teacher-community-and-teamwork/). I think it’s great that (a) you’re learning Somali (since it doesn’t carry a great deal of market-appeal) and (b) that you’re doing so by tapping into Minneapolis’s Somali community. Many people especially new parents ask me about learning a new language; I’m going to make your approach one of the resources I send them to from now on.

    As far as your question about language discrimination and its uniqueness, I would say in terms of what people are actually doing making unfair assumptions about others’ intelligence and worth based on unrelated aspects (for example, how they look, how they speak), I’d say language discrimination is really no different than racial discrimination or any other form (and indeed they’re not really all that separate to be honest with you, the same people who are marginalized by racial, socioeconomic and other forms of discrimination are often not surprisingly also subject to language discrimination). I think where it differs is in the degree to which contemporary society accepts it. In the United States at least overt racism is extremely taboo. Yet you can write articles and books questioning people’s intelligence on the basis of their language. This is I think partially due to the fact that we have a little bit more control over our language than we do over things like our skin color, so people tend to view the way you speak as a matter of being intelligent, having a strong work ethic, and choosing to be a certain kind of socially valued person. Of course, the real situation is much more complex, as I’m sure you know. We do tend to speak the way our families and our peers spoke growing up even if we later learn that this is “incorrect” and try to “fix” it. In addition, some groups have the privilege of having the language they were exposed to by their families and their peers be “the correct” language. In addition, we can’t simply change the way we speak, because it’s so tied up in identity. Barack Obama for example is frequently criticized for using black English/African American (Vernacular) English, because he’s not ratified by some people (mostly White conservatives) as “truly black”. There are social pressures on us from all directions to speak one way or another (for example, from our family to use our home dialects or a scholarly community to use a prestige dialect). It’s not simply a matter of universally “correct” or “incorrect”.

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  8. I love this post as a former linguistic major. You opened a window for me. Writing’s pretty sloppy out here.

    Hope you enjoy:

    From the Mafia

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