Last month, I had the exciting opportunity to ask an Internet celebrity some questions about writing and grammar. Mignon Fogarty, or as most of you probably know her, Grammar Girl, is the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Media Entrepreneurship in the School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is also the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips, one of the oldest and largest podcasting networks; a veteran of Silicon Valley startups; and best known online for her work as the New York Times bestselling author Grammar Girl.
Read on for a transcript of my Q&A session with Grammar Girl, and be sure to check out her website, podcast, and newsletter for more helpful writing tips.
Ryan Hickey: How do you think the Internet and social media have impacted our understanding and use of grammar? Do you think students are aware that they often use improper grammar and spelling online, or do you think they’re so accustomed to that style of writing that they believe they’re writing correctly?
Grammar Girl: Older students I’ve talked with do know the difference between good formal writing and the kind of abbreviated writing they do on social media and when they text message. Some students tell me they are annoyed when their friends use language that is too informal—that leaves out punctuation marks or uses too much abbreviated spelling.
I don’t believe that students are harmed by writing in these informal ways, so long as we also teach them about how to write in formal settings. A recent study showed that grade school students who used the most text messaging abbreviations were actually the best spellers when they were given a spelling test. I do hear teachers complain that students use abbreviations and emoticons in school papers, but that doesn’t mean the students don’t know how to write well; it could just as easily mean that they don’t understand what’s expected of them in an academic setting.
RH: Why do you think it’s so important to have a solid understanding of grammar? What are the short- and long-term benefits?
GG: Few people have jobs in which they don’t have to write; almost all of us are writing more than our parents did. They’d make a phone call; we send an e-mail message. Therefore, we need to write well to make a good impression whether it’s on a potential employer or a potential mate on a dating site.
RH: What message do you feel that informal grammar and spelling sends to the reader?
GG: To me, informal writing can send a few messages. It can show that the writer is in a hurry. I often get messages from coworkers who I know are rushing between meetings, and it’s fine that those messages are short and don’t always use complete sentences. Informal writing can also show that you are part of a close group or that you are comfortable with the other person. For example, my writer friends and language expert friends and I often use informal language when we write to each other, as if to show that although we know the rules, we know we can break them with each other. The problems with informal language arise when you use it in an inappropriate context. For example, you shouldn’t start an e-mail to your teacher with “Hey, Dude!” or send a thank-you text to a potential employer that says, “Thanks for the gr8 meeting.”
RH: What are the most common mistakes you see? Which ones do you find most cringe-worthy?
GG: Comma mistakes are especially common. There are so many different ways to use commas that it’s easy to get it wrong. After all these years, most errors don’t make me cringe—I’ve seen them all—but it does sometimes get under my skin when I see unnecessary words capitalized. Why? Why do People think Random words need to Be capitalized?
RH: Have you heard specific feedback from college admissions officers or employers on how they feel when they encounter improper grammar in applications?
GG: I have heard from many employers who are discouraged by the quality of writing they see in applications, and I’ve also been brought into companies to do training because employers feel that many of their employees need writing help.
When you’re applying for a job, it’s important to remember that the employer is probably looking for an easy way to whittle down a large pile of applications. Eliminating every application that has a writing error is an easy way for them to get that initial pile down to a manageable size.
RH: What are some ways that students can improve their grammar skills? Can you share a stand-out tip for remembering a tricky rule?
GG: Often, if people aren’t sure how to write something, they’ll rewrite the sentence so they don’t have to deal with the problem. Instead of rewriting the sentence, a good way to learn is to look up the answer to the problem. You’ve just identified something you don’t know! Find the answer.
Of course, I think my resources are a good way for people to learn. I put out a free Grammar Girl podcast every week and have an archive of more than 350 podcasts. People can listen to my tips while they commute or work out at the gym. It’s an easy way to fit learning into your day. I also send out a free weekly newsletter with writing tips. If people want more, I’ve written seven different books on writing.
RH: How “perfect” does grammar need to be? Or do you think there’s some leeway?
GG: Many things that people think are grammar rules are actually style choices. For example, most people were taught to make words that end with s possessive in one of two ways: Kansas’s or Kansas’. Those people will think that the other way is wrong, but in reality, it’s a style choice. The Associated Press recommends using only the apostrophe, and the Chicago Manual of Style recommends adding the extra s to the end. There are many other misconceptions about “rules,” so even if you think your grammar is perfect, there are likely to be people who think you’ve done something wrong. Writers should simply strive to do the best job they can do, and know the reasons for the choices they’ve made so they can defend those choices if they’re challenged.
RH: What are your recommendations to non-native speakers regarding style differences (e.g. American English vs. British English)?
GG: You should write for your audience, so if you are writing mainly for American readers, use American English, and if you are writing mainly for British readers, use British English. Neither style is wrong, but readers will notice the difference if you use a phrase or style with that is less familiar to them.