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Grammar, leadership and clarity of thought April 26, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Communication, Language, Leadership.
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It has been a harrowing few weeks, and finding time to write original material for the blog has been a challenge.  I tried to recycle material I had received from friends and associates, but that turned out to be quite inadequate as well.

Instead I spent the little time I had to re-read an article by an actor I admire, about a fascinating new product from a company I respect, in a magazine long established as one of the best in the world: Stephen Fry’s article in the April 12th 2010 edition of TIME magazine on the iPad: http://bit.ly/bY9ah5

Doing that opened the floodgates.  I noticed something in the article which I had missed altogether when I skimmed through it the first time – a grammatical mistake!

No, I said to myself, that can’t be true.  A grammatical mistake in a TIME magazine article by a world-renowned actor and author spotted by an ignoramus like me?  That’s not possible.

I rubbed my eyes, and read the offending sentence over and over again.  I concluded that it was a mistake.  Here’s the passage where the error occurs (page 29 of the written article and at this link on the web: http://bit.ly/aP7eWa), as Fry describes Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO:

“…I do believe Jobs to be a truly great figure, one of the small group of innovators who have changed the world. He exists somewhere between showman, perfectionist overseer, visionary, enthusiast and opportunist, and his insistence upon design, detail, finish, quality, ease of use and reliability are a huge part of Apple's success..

Job’s insistence on the variety of factors that account for Apple’s success is a singular noun, and therefore should be followed by “is” rather than “are”.  Had the first part of the sentence been written “The aspects of the product he insists on getting right – design, detail, finish, quality, ease of use and reliability…”, then it would have been appropriate to use “are”.

Let me be clear: finding a mistake in TIME magazine is a rare occurrence.  Its editors are human and therefore susceptible to the same chances of oversight as everyone else.  To err, after all, is human.

Which is not to argue that we should consider it acceptable, as many writers nowadays do, on the pretext that when the English language becomes more common as the medium of communication among people from different backgrounds, we should be more tolerant towards grammatical mistakes.

That’s codswallop, as it’s tantamount to saying that Pidgin English is good English.  Grammar is a set of rules by which sentences in a language are constructed and therefore understood.  To tolerate grammatical mistakes is to condone fuzzy thinking, which makes for bad leadership.

A simple grammatical mistake does not a bad leader make.  Perhaps, but an important skill of a good leader is the ability to communicate clearly.  How can a leader do so when grammatical mistakes clutter up speeches and proclamations, thereby creating confusion, ambiguity and suspense?  Besides, leaders are supposed to set examples.  If they tolerate sloppy use of language, woe betide their followers when they write and speak.

Recently I came across an excellent talk by Clive James, an Australian raconteur and author who has been living in the UK for some time.  In May 2006 the Australian magazine The Monthly carried an article he wrote on the English language, entitled “The Continuing Insult to the English Language”.  He explains further on his web site:

The piece …attracted a gratifying amount of attention, although I got the impression that I was preaching to the converted, whose numbers were dwindling. Even if that were so, I got the chance of preaching to a lot more of them when Jill Kitson of the ABC asked me to turn the text into a broadcast… 

The broadcast can be heard at this link: http://bit.ly/dhNym5

James continues:

That melancholy long withdrawing roar you hear in the background is generated by all the surviving members of my generation who were taught to parse a sentence. The text of the piece is filed under "Recent Essays" — two versions of the same doomed campaign. 

The text James refers to can be found at this link: http://bit.ly/bbicwT

I am one generation down from Clive James, but if he is right, I must be one of the endangered species of purists who insist on getting things right in language, as I am dead scared of fuzzy thinking.  I am happy to be so.

Sometimes they make it sound like you’re a useless animal… March 15, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Communication.
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A colleague and I changed our travel plans at short notice and decided to take an earlier flight than the one we had booked.  There were no seats available in business class on that flight, so they had to re-book my colleague into economy.  This was the question the kind-hearted person at the service desk put to her colleagues at the gate: “Should I downgrade him first before I send him over?”  After some further exchange, she asked again: “Should I put him down before he comes across?”  Even well-meaning people trying their best to help sometimes make you feel like an animal past its use-by date…