There’s dirty work, dirty code (ask any good programmer), dirty logic, dirty clothing (urgh, you smell — no job offer!), but perhaps the most pervasive dirty is dirty talk and dirty language. Healthy words exhibiting bad behavior. Foul usage. Incorrect grammar. Poor spelling. Wrong pronouns when nouns just wanna be right.

It all makes you look stupid, inept, less than stellar (who wants to hire anyone less than stellar?), mediocre, on the fat part of the curve where imbeciles, lousy writers, and sloppy speakers dominate the business world.

And Lordy help you if your boss blunders through the English language like your superior.

The worst is the manager who swears, “It’s the quality of your ideas that counts, not the way you say it!” And maybe the worst manager is the principal at my kids’ school who told me, “We don’t bother with spelling here. Nobody can spell. That’s what the world has spell checkers for.”

Every time I’ve had to re-write a co-worker’s report, or clean up the run-on sentences in a business proposal my boss wrote, or apologize to a client when my employee misused some pronouns (“Her and me went to the meeting last week.”), I feel like I’ve gotta wash my hands because I just wiped somebody’s hiney.

The first person who posts a sincere excuse or rationalization for poor use of language on this blog is gonna find 30 pounds worth of Webster’s Unabridged in their bed when they wake up…

Get over it. Learn how to use language properly and then use it. Show you can string together a few words properly. Move on to complete paragraphs that start with a main idea. Put a few together to make an argument, a case, a point, a sign of intelligence. Discover sub-headings that organize and showcase big ideas, and create titles that make people want to read what you wrote. Learn to talk with pride and authority. Because your words create and determine reality.

Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” You can look it up: Linguistic Determinism.

Start here. Get an idea of why language matters every day, and get a taste for using it effectively: Pronouns can make or break you (or me).

Then get smarter. Buy some help. Get a good dictionary. A guide to grammar. A book about how to use English effectively. Don’t just keep them on the shelf. Rifle through them every day. Dig out the word-tools that let you create the reality you want. Use them.

Learn how to use words to get what you want in life, in business, and in your career. Don’t come across like a moron. People notice. Even when you think no one notices, they notice. People won’t correct you. But they won’t forget that you are uneducated and illiterate. Stop being defensive, and cut out the excuses and rationalizations. Take some lessons. Gretchen Hirsch’s Talking Your Way to the Top is easy to take, tastes sweet, and will make you laugh enough to take more.

And, if you catch me botching a phrase, misspelling a word, or goofing on an adverb, smack my hiney. It helps me write better next time. It helps me avoid appearing illiterate.

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  1. I completely agree with you about using proper English. However, some people like my fiance use the wrong pronoun or noun because of their disability. Is it their fault that they have a dyslexia and mix up words? She will correct herself when she writes things, but speaking is sometimes an issue. Some people cannot help it no matter how much education or time they spend working on their grammar.

  2. Hi Nick. I totally agree. I have even seen the misuse of grammar on a few unnamed websites–not yours though. I am a frequent poster in the eSight forums, and there’s one person in particular who gets it wrong all the time. I’m not going to name names, but this person’s punctuation is always off. Whenever JAWS or System Access reads through his comments, I can’t help but think to myself “This guy must’ve failed English class.” I was told a long time ago that if somebody wants a job, they’d better know how to spell and they’d better have good grammar skills. I think this is definitely true.

  3. How refreshing to read that good English is still important. People seem to think it doesn’t matter any more…why? When I was working for a top international search firm, we received a resume from a man who claimed to have a degree in English. There were 29 spelling and grammar mistakes in his resume and covering letter. We just assumed he was lying about the degree and his details went straight into the shredder.

  4. There have always been those who could not spell or write properly. What bothers me is that so many of them today are teachers. With the state of education in the US today, if you want a decent education, it’s pretty much up to you.
    And yes, it does matter. Sloppy speech and writing implies sloppy thinking. Over the last 45+ years in the the IT world, I can remember only one person who was technically competent while ‘educationally challenged’. Managers and coworkers respected his expertise but winced whenever they heard him talk. He eventually realized it was limiting him, got some tutoring, acquired his GED at 37 and enrolled in college. He knew it mattered.

  5. Bravo! If I have one more person “ax” me a question “alot,” I think I will rip a head off.

    It’s not a question of ethnic background because I hear/see this all the time from a lot of young people.

    Yes, “ain’t” is almost common usage nowadays. However it still makes most people wince.

    There is something to be said for respecting a language and learning to wield it effectively.

    At least that is what I was told by an English man who corrected my pronunciation of “aluminium.” :)

    And I hope you pulled your kiddo out of the school above…

  6. There is a misconception, especially in academic circles, that proper use of language implies a stiff, formal posture. That’s not true at all. My posting may have bent some academic hineys out of shape, but I think my writing is clean. What I enjoy is a speaker or writer who toes the line on form, but delivers an unexpected message in a style that makes the hairs on my neck stand up. The contrast makes the message entertaining and pounds it home all the harder. I wish more people could see the power of proper language combined with edgy delivery.

  7. Years ago, I noticed a new colleague from Oregon erred in her use of conditional phrases. She would always say, “If I would have….” rather than, “If I had…” or “If I were…” Then I saw the same error on television shows and in movies. Now everyone seems to make the same mistake. I suppose it demonstrates the power of the entertainment media.

    When I try to explain the error without scary grammatical words, people just shrug. “You knew what I meant, didn’t you?” they say.

    Yes, I did know what they meant. And I wondered where they were educated.

  8. Nick, thank you! You got across an important message without sounding preachy or priggish. Language DOES matter. As I tell my resume-writing trainees, it is the primary tool we use to get our messages across. We need to keep the tool sharp and use it expertly.

    I’ve done my part… trained my kids! They are experts at spotting “its/it’s” violations, misspellings, and other language errors. And yes, they went to schools that used “inventive spelling,” but I insisted they spell correctly.

  9. Thanks for your column on a subject dear to my heart. But as for that title: if you had looked up “hiney” you would have found that although many people spell it this way, the standard dictionary spelling is actually “heinie” (for example, see Funny, both spellings got flagged by my spellchecker.

  10. Nice catch, Julie! But the vernacular for buttocks is extensive and :-) flexible!

    You’re right: some dictionaries do not acknowledge “hiney.” My old Webster’s 7th Collegiate does not recognize it at all. But Webster’s 3rd New International (unabridged, 1981) includes it as a variant of “heinie.” First accepted definition of heinie is “a German,” and “buttocks” is second. The Shorter Oxford recognizes hiney, but again as a variant of heinie. So, heinie is the more accepted spelling, but hiney is okay, too.

    Heinie just looks too foreign and too proper. Hiney comes across as more American, and more, well, cute. And I was trying to be a bit cute. “Does someone have to wipe your ass?” would have been too aggressive, and besides, I was going for the “baby” connotation. Hiney just works for me. :-)

  11. Dear Nick:

    What an interesting thread. As the author of Talking Your Way to the Top, the book you mentioned in this post (and thank you for mentioning it),I’m delighted that I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness. Ray Saunders’ comment about teachers is dead on in far too many cases. Some of the notes that come home from school are rife with grammar and spelling errors. How sad!

    Congratulations to Louise Kursmark; you’ve done the best thing possible for your children. I did it for mine, too–and now they are doing the same for their children. I love it when my five-year-old grandson comes up with the proper use of the subjunctive (“If I were taller, I could climb that tree.”)

    People ask me why I care. I answer with a question of my own. Why do you think the first thing a dictator does is seize the channels of communication? Because words matter, and those who use them well have an edge–in everything.

  12. I’d like to add this thought: anyone who wants to speak better could benefit from Toastmasters. In every Toastmasters meeting, someone is assigned to be the Grammarian, who watches for errors in grammar and for interesting turns of phrase. There is also someone assigned to count how many times anyone says “um” or its evil siblings (“er,” “uh,” etc.)

    Toastmasters has a long-standing formula for success in learning to speak in public (or anywhere else.) It also builds confidence. Some clubs are great for networking, others not so much. Check it out at

  13. Not all Toastmasters clubs are worthwhile. I was briefly at one whose members were entirely non-native speakers of English trying to help each other. There was absolutely nothing they could do for me, and hardly anything I could do for them, as their established pattern of criticism for each talk was to praise it politely. What they really needed was remedial attention to pronunciation and diction that Americans could understand, as well as gaining an ability to focus on–and get to–the point of the talk.

    I wish that I had known how to help in this frustrating situation. Instead I left and never returned.

  14. YOU ARE MY HERO!!!
    I have preached the importance of good grammar, correct spelling and overall structure of a well-written letter, report, etc. for years. I don’t think I have ever proofread one college application essay, research paper, etc. that displayed any evidence that the author ever went English class. Those students should have received a failing grade and repeated the course in summer school. What ever happened to teachers’ commitment to helping students become the best writer he/she can be?

    You are spot on when you stated that poor writers (even those with only minor deficiencies) will be perceived as a moron who reads nothing other than street signs. Seriously people!! Read books! Then more books! Another great option for those beginning college who are NOT skilled writers is to take a grammar class. You learn all of the basics with the focus being solely on writing skills. I loved it because the course reviewed rules, etc. that I did not grasp as well in elementary school. And we diagramed sentences!! Do they still teach diagramming? The course sets you up to really think about grammar, sentence structure, etc. throughout your college career and, hopefully beyond.

    I am not one to quickly judge a person with two exceptions – poor writing skills and frequent swearing. I am screaming silently to myself – MORON, IDIOT, DUMMY . . . . . . Yes, I am working on this character flaw I am not proud of. Unfortunately, these judgement are universal in the more educated population.

    READ, READ, READ, and READ the tiny grammar book by author White (it’s my bible when I have any grammar question), READ MORE. And WRITE, WRITE, and WRITE MORE seeking the assessment of a skilled writer.

    Improve your grammar skills and thoughts like “MORON” will be replaced by immediate respect and assumption that you are bright and well-educated.

    ANYONE CAN IMPROVE THEI WRITING SKILLS – so do it and boost your confidence greatly.