Guys, Good Grammar is Hot!
Samantha and I worked together at a small newspaper in Connecticut, where we both landed after college. I was a cub reporter and Sam was an editor, whose duties included proofreading and making reporters’s copy shine.
You wouldn’t think this would be such a hot dating topic, but I can’t tell you how many times coaching clients and other women have complained to me about how men on dating apps and sites cannot write or spell.
They list it as a major turn off.
Men seem to complain less about this, but that’s a whole other blog post, which I have already written.
In my interview with Samantha, below, she explains how she got so good at grammar, and while she knows her stuff, she concedes it’s hard to be perfect. Women should not expect Shakespeare. Single ladies should cut guys some slack.To a point.
As she says: “Clear writing indicates clear thinking. Correct (even if casual) writing indicates respect for the reader!”
“When I finish typing this, I’m going to proofread it carefully. Why? Because I care what you and your readers think of me. Why? Because I respect you and them.”
For more, read on for my Q and A with Samantha. She also gives you a quick grammar lesson at the end.
K.A.: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be so good at grammar? I know part of the story - since you were my editor way back when - but my readers don’t.
S.B.: As a kid, I read a LOT. And I had very good teachers; they made me do something almost no one has to do anymore: diagram sentences. It’s deadly. It’s excruciating. But the best way to understand how something is put together and how it works or doesn’t work—an engine, a bicycle, a sentence—is to take it apart and see what all the pieces do and why they have to be hooked up in a certain way. Diagramming sentences is a way to justify every word in a sentence and explain how it does its job. If you grit your teeth and do it enough (it’s pretty hard work, especially at first), you come to understand grammar deeply, and you’d no more put a verb in the wrong tense or hold two complete sentences together with a comma than you’d attach your bike’s handlebars to the pedals or replace the brake cables with dental floss.
Once I had acquired this superpower, I could do two things: write clearly and fix other people’s writing. I went into advertising, then journalism, and I’ve been writing and editing for decades now.
K.A. When you and I first met, online dating wasn’t a big thing, and neither was texting. So back then, we were all dating guys who, well, who knew if they could spell well - lol.
Nowadays, before even meeting, you know if the guy is bad at grammar and has trouble spelling. Emails and texts say a lot. Do you agree?
S.B.: Oh, I couldn’t agree more—how someone expresses himself is nearly as important as what he’s saying. And that doesn’t mean he has to write texts that read like Shakespearean sonnets! Good communication, which good grammar is a part of, also involves appropriate use of things like slang, colloquialisms, abbreviations, emoji, even profanity (though you obviously want to avoid that in an online dating context). A tweet to your besties and a state of the union address are constructed very differently and have different standards, but both should be clear, effective, and not riddled with errors made out of ignorance. Clear writing indicates clear thinking. Correct (even if casual) writing indicates respect for the reader! When I finish typing this, I’m going to proofread it carefully. Why? Because I care what you and your readers think of me. Why? Because I respect you and them.
K.A. As a dating coach who works primarily with women, I hear a lot from women about how atrocious spelling and bad grammar turns them off. As a major word lover myself, who spent years as a writer and editor in the journalism world, I am sensitive to this too.
But shouldn’t we cut these guys a little bit of slack? Maybe they didn’t go to Ivy League schools like you and I did. Maybe they are street smart, not book smart. Maybe they are typing fast and predictive spelling is what messes their messages up. Maybe they have MBAs and are talented in business, yet they just can’t spell well. I tell my clients to be somewhat forgiving.
Where would you draw the line personally?
S.B. : Of course everyone deserves some slack, and that includes you and me, too! I get things wrong from time to time (this is partly why I call myself a grammar advocate, not a grammar expert—I’m not perfect!). I’ve been misled by Google, and I think we’ve all been torpedoed more than once by autocorrect. My father was a smart guy and a terrific writer but a terrible speller. The occasional misspelling or dangling modifier should absolutely not be a dealbreaker, because the perpetrator could be a brilliant and compassionate surgeon, or a profoundly empathetic and principled artist. I would ask two questions: (1) What is he saying? and (2) Did he proofread? When he writes to you, does he use a fairly rich and sophisticated vocabulary, or is it “Me and my bros like hanging out & beers”? Does he express interesting, original, complex ideas, poorly spelled as some of them may be? I’d rather read “I have to go to the opthalmologist Saturday morning but could meet you for brunch” than, well, “Me and my bros like hanging out & beers.” And mistakes should be pretty rare because he shouldn’t hit Send without proofreading. It won’t catch absolutely everything, especially if he simply doesn’t know that ophthalmologist has two h’s in it (spellcheck or autocorrect might actually help here), but it takes no more than a second or two and will filter out the most obvious blunders. As I said, taking the time to proofread shows respect for the recipient. You wouldn’t just dash off a cover letter to a prospective employer and send it without proofreading it, would you? No, because you want this person to think well of you! The same thing applies to communication with a romantic interest. Care and attention to detail show respect.
K.A. Are you single, and if so, can you tell us about some of your experiences with guys who seemed promising but turned you off totally when you got unintelligible texts from them? Or perhaps received emails that caused you to cringe.
S.B.: I am single. I have gotten texts that pushed me off the fence in the direction of “nah” because they were completely free of punctuation. But mostly, I find it works in the other direction: I find good writing extremely attractive. It’s like good manners—you know, those little touches that tell you a man was raised right, like when he helps you on with your coat, or moves to the curb side of the sidewalk, or is careful to hold his umbrella over you when you’ve forgotten yours. When a man sends me an email that he clearly put a little bit of effort into, making it charming and interesting and correctly spelled and punctuated, I think not only, (a) here’s a guy with some education, class, and style, but also (b) here’s a guy who is interested in me and cares what I think of him. Now, of course, it’s not a guarantee: He could still, on further investigation, turn out to be an absolute rat. But even a guy who is not particularly well educated or a great speller can take the time to write something that shows he’s got some brains and personality and that he thinks well enough of you that he hopes you think well of him. Some communication is short and functional: “Running late. Plz get a table. Sorry—be there soon.” But a man who is really into you can always do better than “U up?"
K.A.: I hear you are working on a book about grammar. Would love to hear more about it. Please share what you can.
S.B.: I have a finished manuscript of a book on ten very common grammar mistakes that can easily be avoided and how to avoid them. It’s very short, because nobody wants or has time to read a massive textbook on this, and each chapter has amusing exercises at the end so that you can practice what you’ve learned instead of just reading and instantly forgetting it because you have a new password at work and someone has told you the name of an awesome new Netflix show you need to be watching. (I’m aware that’s a run-on sentence. I did it on purpose, for effect. See how much fun you can have when you have confidence that you know what you’re doing?) I’m looking now for an agent whom I can convince that while most grammar books may not sell well, this one will, because it mostly avoids troubling jargon like “nonrestrictive clause” and “indirect object” that makes people's eyes glaze over, and because I am not a stuffy scold but a friendly, supportive person who wants everyone to be confident and have fun with this crazy language. (I did it again. But I am wearing a helmet.)
K.A.: Lastly, since this seems to be such a hot topic with many of the ladies I work with and talk with, can you share some common grammar tips with us, and suggestions on how to avoid spelling mistakes? Maybe if we can help improve people’s grammar and spelling, we can help improve their online dating success.
S.B.: Spelling is hard, because the English language is made up of layers and layers of other languages—and even ancient variants of English itself, confusingly!—and nobody ever bothered to go through and impose any kind of consistency on it. It’s frankly a miracle that anyone ever learns how to spell it at all, though of course that is a noble and worthy goal. Grammar is a little more sensible, though not also without its quirks. But I’ll give you all two very simple little tips that will help right now.
1. “It’s" with an apostrophe always, ALWAYS means either “it is,” or “it has.” So if you’re writing a sentence and you can’t substitute your questionable “it’s" with one of those, you need to ditch the apostrophe. For example: "It’s time for lunch”—yes, "It is time for lunch.” “It's rained all week”—yes, “It has rained all week." BUT: “The car lost it’s brakes”—hmm … "The car lost it is brakes"? "The car lost it has brakes"? Nope, so you write “The car lost its brakes.”
2. People who know perfectly well the difference between a subject and an object get confused when you throw in extra people or things. Removing the extra people and things makes the proper form obvious. I will demonstrate:
“Her and her sister go to Vegas every Christmas.” If her sister didn’t accompany her, would you write “Her goes to Vegas every Christmas”? No, of course not. You’d write “She goes to Vegas every Christmas.” Her sister doesn’t actually change that; the sentence should read, “She and her sister go to Vegas every Christmas.” Similarly, “Please bring your donations for the raffle to Roger or myself.” Forget about Roger for a minute, and ask yourself if you’d write “Please bring your donations for the raffle to myself.” I hope not. Only I can do something to myself; other people can’t do anything to myself. They can do/bring/say/etc. things to me. So if people can bring their donations for the raffle to me, including Roger produces “Please bring your donations for the raffle to Roger or me.”
I hear Roger and his bros like hanging out & beers.