The Grammar Bias

22 August 2013

In their latest newsletter, authors Chip and Dan Heath told a story related to the subject of their book Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work.  


Their story brought to mind a problem that I often see among trainees in my business writing courses.


Information you can trust

The Heaths told about a woman who loved to bake. Nearly every week, she baked cakes and cookies and scones and gave them to her husband to take to the office and share with his colleagues. Her husband’s colleagues quickly ate the goodies, not so much because they tasted good (the cakes were low-fat and quite dry), but because they were free and available.


At company parties, when the colleagues met the woman, the only thing they had to talk about with her was the baked goods she had sent. And because they didn’t want to say anything negative, they would say things like ‘Your banana bread is delicious’ or ‘You can’t believe how quickly the goodies you send disappear!’


A few months later, the husband announced to his colleagues that his wife was getting ready to start a catering business.


The colleagues thought to themselves, ‘Uh oh, what have we done?’


They had played a small role in encouraging the woman to start a business based on faulty, biased information. She had been receiving nothing but positive feedback, which confirmed her decision to start a catering business.


Get disconfirming information

One of the points that Dan and Chip Heath make in Decisive is to seek out disconfirming information to challenge what you think is true before making a decision.


They further elaborate the problem with this kind of mistake: the tension between ‘particulars’ (the compliments the woman received from her husband’s colleagues) and the ‘pattern’ (the fact that whatever food is freely available in any office setting will be eaten).


Bias among ESL speakers

OK, so how does that apply to the people I train?


The bias that I see over and over again among ESL learners is that they think their biggest problem with English is grammar.


I think this happens because people have been traumatized by their experience of writing English assignments at school. Teachers, it seems, tend to focus on the ‘small stuff’ (grammar mistakes), at the expense of recognizing the ‘important stuff’ (creative ideas and well-developed essays). Face it, it’s easier to go through a paper with a red pen and mark all the grammar mistakes, than it is to comment on the content of an essay. And with hundreds of papers to mark, teachers are hard pressed to get their work done.


And the trauma doesn’t end with school. Many bosses complain about their workers’ poor English grammar (the ‘particulars’) – but they seldom praise the successful communication that occurs far more often (the ‘pattern’).


The result is biased, unthinking fear about what usually amounts to a ‘non-problem’.


The fact

The fact is that many second-language users of English write hundreds of emails and letters and reports at work – documents that usually successfully convey their intended message.


That’s not to say that they always convey the correct message. (Native speakers are guilty of this too!) But their documents are usually successful.


The measure of success

My point? The measure of successful business communication is getting the results you want.


So try to keep a balanced perspective.


If the results of your communication are what you wanted to achieve, then don’t sweat the grammar. If your readers act correctly based on your communication, don’t sweat the grammar.


The real problems

Of course, if your written communication does NOT result in correct action, then you may need to take another look.


But the main problem may still not occur because of poor grammar. Rather, it may be due to inadequate or irrelevant information in the document. Or it may be due to confusing sequencing or the lack of a clear action statement.


And, yes, I have seen grammar that was so poor that the message was not properly conveyed. But not as often as you might suspect.


My advice? Focus on the important stuff.

·      Think through a situation you need to write about before you start to write.

·      List all the questions your readers are likely to ask about it, along with the relevant details to answer those questions.

·      State clear actions that need to be taken and give clear timelines where necessary.

If you do these things, a few grammar mistakes will probably not matter.


Taking some time off

For the next few weeks I’ll be taking some time with my family, so I won’t be posting. But if you have any comments or questions, you’re still invited to contact me any time. See you again soon!







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