MARCUS: English skills lead to economic success

Morton Marcus
June 12, 2010
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Morton Marcus

Recently, a friend sent me a thoughtful article titled, “Heads I win, tales you lose.” I skimmed the piece; I could not read it with the seriousness it deserved because of the spelling error in the title.

If you did not see that error (tales for tails), you must continue to read this column.

You may choose to call me a snob or an obsessive perfectionist. You may disagree with my insistence that appropriate spelling and good grammar are vital components of effective communications. Yet, unless you have extraordinary assets, your communication skills will go a long way to determining your social and economic standing.

There are many ways to express an idea or an emotion. However, good communication is not sloppy or careless. A favorite story in my family concerned a rainy day when my parents were to meet at a certain corner pharmacy. From there they would take the bus home together.

Because of the heavy rain, each took refuge in a pharmacy doorway. My mother was in the eastern doorway and my father in the northern entrance. They did not see each other. Each stood there, fuming about the other being late. Then, in that era before cell phones, they began to worry about each other. Finally, after two buses had gone by, my father emerged from his north-side shelter and ran to the next bus as it stopped on the east side of the building. Seeing him, my mother, greatly relieved, ran through the rain and joined him on the bus.

Neither of them saw this as humorous at the time. As the years passed, forgiveness set in, but the story remained a morality tale for us as children. Be precise, specific and accurate!

English is a language with many traps. Words may sound alike, yet their meanings may depend on their spellings. Or they may be spelled the same and mean very different things. Take that word: mean. Three definitions come to mind immediately (to signify, to be cruel, and to be an average). Context is important, if a person is willing to make the effort to understand your speech or writing.

Even if I am willing and do try, your accent, your jargon, your slang, your ignorant or sloppy indifference to the conventions of communication can be impermeable barriers to understanding. Yet, in today’s world, we are excessively permissive about the use of language.

At home, in school, and in the workplace we tolerate violations of simple rules of English usage. Sometimes we think these errors are cute or trendy. Sometimes we think them unfortunate or too personal and that it is impolite for us to comment and correct. Often, we don’t know what is correct. Some anarchists spinelessly accept anything as “language change.”

Why is this topic important in a column devoted to Indiana’s economy? When we go ourselves or send our children into the world with our/their garbled speech and fractured writing, we reduce our/their chances for social and economic success. Good language skills have no color, no religion and no ethnicity; they do have a payoff.

How do we improve? When you hear errors in the conversation of children, correct them. If you find errors by adults, ask if you can give some advice. If they consent, correct them. Do not let errors in this newspaper or on radio/TV go unnoticed. You will not be popular, but you will be doing something good for yourself and Indiana.

However, do not correct a spouse too frequently or you will require the services of a skilled surgeon and an eloquent attorney.•


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.


  • Excellent Column!
    Your thoughts are right on, Mr. Marcus! Unfortunately, "appropriate spelling and good grammar" suffer at the hands of "content" (whatever it may be!) in today's classroom--and that classroom may be at any grade level, including college. Effective writing, i.e., persuasive writing, requires a working knowledge of the marvelous "mechanics" of our language, and ability to persuade can be the sine qua non of economic success.

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