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When Right Is Wrong

Can right be wrong? Vicki raised this question in a Writing Tune-Up class today. She worried that if she used correct grammar that other people didn’t recognize as correct, they would think she was wrong. Vicki’s response was to use incorrect grammar–to be accepted.

Vicki decided to be wrong to sound right. Does that make sense?

Yes. As much as I hate to encourage incorrect grammar, it can be the right choice. When correct grammar screams “Pay attention to me!” incorrect grammar is the quiet, correct choice.

Example: If I am addressing a typical group–not a crowd of copy editors or English teachers–I will say things like this:

Who did you vote for?
Is that him?
It’s me.

I know each of those statements contains an error (and my grammar and spelling checker knows it too). These would be correct–technically:

Whom did you vote for?
Is that he?
It’s I.

Although technically correct, those sentences would fail with an audience–even most readers–because their correctness demands attention. The correct grammar becomes the overriding message.

So I agreed with Vicki, but I didn’t encourage her. To my taste, Vicki was setting the bar too low. She was using sentences like “Her and Rob are here” and “Give Kate and I a ride” out of fear that “She and Rob” and “Kate and me” would sound wrong to her audience. Vicki may be right about her audience. But I cannot bring myself to use her as the subject of a sentence and I as an object, and I would never argue for those uses.

We need to communicate with our listening audience and our readers, but we must not underestimate them. Vicki risks using “Her and Rob are” with a group that knows better.

Also, we need to use language that communicates who we are in addition to what we have to say. Blatantly bad grammar presents us badly.

What do you think? Are you willing to let slip “He laid down for a nap” or “Who did you tell?” in the interest of easy communication? Or would that be selling out our rich English language?


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “When Right Is Wrong”

  • Great post, Lynn. As with most things, I just write “around” the problem.

    “He prepared for a nap” or “He was ready to take a nap” and “Did you tell anyone?” work pretty well in my book.

    I hate to be grammar police, but I’d rather the written word be correct (especially if my name is on the document in any place).

  • Lori, writing “around” the problem is an excellent solution. I recommend that approach to people who are not sure of their punctuation: write it a different way. If people can’t remember “two weeks’ vacation,” they can write “two weeks of vacation” or “a two-week vacation.”

    Thanks for sharing.


  • I would never intentionally write or say anything using incorrect grammar. My parents corrected me too many times as a child, and the right way just feels right even when I can’t explain the rule that makes it right. However, there is almost always a way to write and speak that avoids sounding stuffy. I strive for that tone.

  • Hi, Margaret. I appreciate your sound thinking. With your comment and Lori’s, I am beginning to wonder whether I need to avoid the incorrect uses I noted above. I’m thinking that it depends on the audience, as usual.


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