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April 27th, 2005

The April 6 contest winners

by Barbara Wallraff

“Personally, I feel using good English does not matter whatsoever,” one message that came in to my Web site began. (I’ve withheld the name of the person who sent it, because I am nice.) That was an unexpected response to my offer, a few weeks ago, to give a new paperback of my book “Your Own Words” to the five readers who did the best job of explaining why using good English does matter to them. From the way the message continued, I could tell that its author was a student, probably in high school. Hey, kiddo? Before it’s too late, listen up to the five people who will be getting free books.

I don’t have the space, unfortunately, to quote everything that each winning contestant wrote -- or to quote from the many other readers who made similar points almost as eloquently. I’ll just share some of the highlights of the winners’ letters here.

Margaret Brady, of Kingston, Ontario, wrote: “I am not well-educated, but using good English and proper pronunciation of words has given me an edge over my peers. I will never forget being asked, years ago, what university I graduated from. I asked the person why he thought I graduated from university, and he indicated that my language, grammar and speaking manner sounded refined.”

William W. Beckley, of Tipton, Iowa, wrote: “I was a Depression kid. In those days school wasn’t important, but getting a job was. I quit when I was 15, graduated when I was 25. College at 35. My English grades were low. Unexpectedly, in all my adult life I have been involved in writing business letters, procedures and reports, and my lack of writing knowledge caused me a lot of ‘re-do.’”

Allen J. Philbrick, of Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote: “I am a trial lawyer. My job is to frame, develop, organize and persuasively explain my client’s position. I write motions, briefs, case-evaluation summaries and opinion letters, and of course argue in court. Using good English is absolutely essential to my success. Using the language correctly reflects a clear thought process, which results in a precise statement of my position. Finding the right word makes my writing more concise, which makes it more forceful. The more forceful, the more persuasive my arguments will be.”

Alice D’Alessio, of Madison, Wis., wrote: “I served as human-resources manager for a large architectural and building firm for many years, in charge of hiring. If an application came to me with misspellings or poor grammar, I automatically discarded it. Probably not all human-resources people are as picky, but it seemed to me that if a person couldn’t take the trouble to write a perfect letter of application, he/she could not be counted on for diligent effort in other tasks.”

David Sylvain, of New Limerick, Maine, wrote: “In this increasingly fast-paced and confusing world, using good English is like a last refuge of control. Orderly language leads to a more orderly life. Sloppy writing and speaking lead to misunderstanding and confusion.”

I’ll second all of that. Congratulations to you five. Your books are on their way. And kiddo? Remind me, please: What is it that to the wise is sufficient?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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