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May 11th, 2005

More about why good English matters

by Barbara Wallraff

A few weeks ago I asked you why good English matters to you (please tell me it does!). That was a contest, and two weeks ago I announced the winners and awarded the prizes. But even since then, you’ve continued to send me your thoughts on the subject. I’d like to share some of the follow-up e-mails and letters I’ve received, and quote from a few contest runners-up. Most letters made one (or more) of three points:

First, a good command of language opens doors. It’s particularly helpful in making a good initial impression. This is something I heard from people in all ages and stages of life -- for instance, a 16-year-old newly employed lifeguard, a mother headed back to college to earn a graduate degree, physicians, a Polish immigrant’s daughter, immigrants from Germany and Hispanic countries, and a retired probation officer.

What one of my contest winners said inspired Charlene Dann, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., to write: “Alice D’Alessio, of Madison, Wis., wrote that she automatically discarded job applications that had misspellings or poor grammar. I would like to add that even in entry-level positions for manual labor, neatness and legibility count. I have read applications -- by high-school graduates! -- with the name of their city and high school misspelled. There have also been applicants who scribbled so badly that we could not have read their phone number if we had wanted to call them for an interview.”

Barbara Coonradt, of Albany, N.Y., among other people, pointed out that upholding standards is advantageous not just when applying for a job but all the time. “When people speak or write improperly, I immediately view them as not very intelligent,” she wrote. “While I realize that my perception may be incorrect, it’s hard for me to forgive the misuse of English when proper usage is something most people can learn easily.”

And Margaret Ferrara, of Grosse Pointe, Mich., had this further observation: “The use of proper English has helped to dissolve many stereotypes and prejudices. Booker T. Washington was a well-respected African-American in the Civil War era, a time when African-Americans were shunned and thought of as ignorant. His educated status and use of proper English overcame some prejudices about the intelligence of African-Americans.”

A second important point made by a number of readers is that human beings need to communicate with each other, and for that, we need language. As Rachel White, of Albany, N.Y., explained it: “Feeling connected to others is essential. That connection is universally achieved through communication. To be understood specifically, a command of language is imperative.”

Third and not least, good English -- using it, reading it, hearing it -- can give us great pleasure. Patricia P. Miller, of Williamston, Mich., wrote of “the joy of a perfectly turned phrase or the proper use of an unusual word.” Andy Alpart, of Slingerlands, N.Y., wrote: “It is both enjoyable and useful to spend time figuring out the best way to express what you mean. The language has every word you need. You just need to look around until you figure out exactly how to animate your idea.”

Hear, hear!

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

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