This Forbes Article is Basically a Waste of Time

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When I was in college, I had a class with Professor John R. Costello. The respected linguist looked venerable, but I was surprised early on: instead of fighting to preserve correct grammar and long-established vocabulary usage, he explained that language is a living thing that’s bound to change.

I wish Forbes contributor Kern Lewis could have a little chat with Professor Costello. In what is one of the weakest articles I’ve ever read on the site, Lewis implores readers to be grammatically correct when it comes to their business correspondence and advertising.  At first, this may just sound like common sense.  After all, evolving language or not, people are unlikely to take your company seriously if your communiqués, newsletters, and advertising seem poorly proofread or are downright incoherent.

But common errors aren’t what Lewis is focused on. First, he attacks slogans and jingles that bend grammar rules, like a long-running ad campaign for Winston cigarettes, whose slogan went “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should”. What’s the problem with it, you might wonder?  Technically, that “like” should be an “as” – but like the general public, to whom the ads were directed, you may think “as” sounds a bit stuffy, which is the exact opposite of the message the brand wanted to send.

Lewis assures us that his article isn’t just a way for him to vent about slogan-related pet peeves old and new (he was apparently inspired to write the piece because of Hyundai’s new “Live brilliant” ad campaign); he claims that statistics show 10-15% of the population are bothered by grammar errors. Think of all the customers that represents!

Lewis does have a point, but the way he makes it is downright silly. Take his beef with Winston, for example: cigarettes have been a hugely successful product, and their heyday was actually at the time when that slogan came out.   The reason they’ve become less popular is because of another wording issue: medical warnings.

Most business owners know that you have to appeal to an audience. They also realize that the most successful slogans or jingle lyrics aren’t necessarily grammatically correct. Heck, no one I know even seems sure whether the famously catchy song goes “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener”, or if the writers chose the more common, albeit incorrect “I wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener”.  And I doubt the Oscar Mayer Company dwells on it – as long as people are singing the song with their product’s name in it, that’s all that matters.

Lewis then moves on to the world of business correspondence. Here, I do tend to agree with him more; it doesn’t look good if a company representative makes a grammar error in a letter or email.  ….Then again, the errors Lewis chooses to highlight are inept examples. He even had to add an addendum about one to his piece. The other, using a reflexive pronoun like this: “please contact Dave or myself”, is technically incorrect.  But it has become so de rigueur that very few people will be shocked by it.  This reflexive verb usage, for better or for worse, is an example of how our language is changing: something starts as a mistake, and becomes so frequently used that it will probably just eventually become accepted.

If, like Lewis, you insist on doing things “the right way”, once you’re citing a common mistake, it’s often too late. Of course it’s important to proofread, and it’s essential that your message be clear. But my old professor is right, and it’s not hard to see: English, like all languages, is ever-evolving.  The evidence is all around us, from words whose definitions are changing and expanding (take, for example, “literally”), to grammatical elements that have mostly died out, like the subjunctive tense (hence the confusion over that Oscar Mayer wiener song).  However you may feel about it, the truth is that when you’re trying to reach the general public, you may just have to talk like them, and not like a textbook.

by Alysa Salzberg

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