I never talk about grammar rules, but I read some good advice last night.
If you’re new to these emails, I am one of the few English teachers on Earth who is anti-grammar.
But this week my bedtime reading is a book by Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic, called How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, and he makes an interesting point about grammar.
Here it is:
The single most important grammar rule to master is when to use “I” and when to use “me.” I’ll bet less than 20 percent of the general public gets that right. Normally it wouldn’t matter that 20 percent of the public is judging you. That still leaves a strong majority that isn’t, and for most purposes that would be fine. The problem is that the 20 percent in this case tend to be the most well-educated and successful folks. Those are the same people you might someday want to impress if you’re asking for a job, trying to get venture funding for your start-up, or proposing marriage.
But not about “I” vs “me.”
Every native speaker who took at least one grammar class in school has their own “most important grammar rule.” (Personally, I would like to teach every native speaker the correct meaning of the word “literally.”) (And then make it illegal to say “awesome” more than ten times per minute.)
But his comment about the 20% is, as the Brits would say, spot on.
If you’re ambitious, if you want more from life than what you already have, then it’s important to tell the 20 percent above you, “Hey, I’m just like you.”
And using the same grammar they use can do that.
But here’s something Mr. Adams didn’t mention.
The 20% above me may be different than the 20% above you.
Different people have a different 20%.
Who is your 20%?
Is it native speakers or non-English native speakers?
If it’s native speakers, relax.
Even the top 20% can’t do what you do.
I’m talking about speaking a foreign language.
Just 20% of Americans study a foreign language before college.
Then only 7.5% during college.
I was one of those 20%, and then one of those 7.5%, and I would bet a million Francs that the number of my classmates from French class who can singing along with Edith Piaf or read Victor Hugo in the original is exactly zero.
So when you’re speaking to a native speaker, even with your mistakes, they’re thinking, “I studied Spanish in school for 12 years and still can’t order a water in a restaurant. This person must be smart.”
It’s like you’re sitting in traffic in a dirty Ferrari. The people in the other cars don’t see the mud on your tires. All they see is you have something they don’t.
And what should you do if your 20% is non-native speakers?
Ooo, that’s a juicy tip I’ve got for you!
But it will have to wait till tomorrow.
I’m literally out of coffee.
And that’s not awesome.