Say it like you know it

Mistakes in grammar can reflect on your mastery of other skills

It was a rainy day, and I was between appointments, quietly sipping coffee and reading my email at Panera Bread. A young man sat next to me and asked if I would do him a favor.

“What do you need?”

“You look fairly intelligent. Would you take a look at my résumé and tell me what you think?”

How could I say no? 

He was a recent college grad – 2015 in fact. Of course, he had little experience, but the résumé looked good. He had a 3.8 cum, had joined the right societies and had his share of working-your-way-through-college jobs. My only comment was that he had made the same mistake with two different words.

“Both ‘data’ and ‘media’ are plural.”

“What does that mean?”

“You don’t say the data was, you say the data were. Likewise, you don’t say the media is, you say the media are.”

“It sounds better the way I have it.”

“That’s only because you’re used to hearing them and using them wrong. It’s a common mistake, but it’s still a mistake.”

“I feel more comfortable the way I have it.”

“You’re going to use this to try to get a job, right? Do you really want to show prospective employers faulty grammar?”

“I’m an engineer, not an English major. We’re not even supposed to know this stuff. Cut me some slack!”

“Let me tell you a story. Years ago, I was running a meeting at MIT. We had about 20 people from all over the country. They all had PhDs, or at least advanced degrees in engineering or science disciplines. All I have is a BS, so I was probably the least educated person in the room, and somehow I was running the meeting.

“Responding to a question, I mistakenly said ‘the data is…’ even though I knew better. The director for the Center for Advanced Engineering Studies immediately castigated me in front of everyone: ‘Don’t you even know that word is plural?’ I looked around the room and got no sympathy. I was never so embarrassed, and I don’t think I’ve ever made that mistake again.

“About the same time, I read an article which explained that people who fail to learn and speak their language properly probably haven’t learned anything else any better. In other words, you’re an engineer. When I hear you say something like ‘the data is’, it makes me think you haven’t studied engineering any more carefully than you studied the language you use every day. You have good marks; why would you want to make a prospective employer or anyone else wonder how you got them?”

He mumbled, “I never thought of it that way before.”

“As I said, it’s a common mistake, and many people may not notice. News anchors, business leaders, politicians and others make such mistakes. This experience at MIT made me a student of that relationship over the years, and I’ve found for the most part, it’s true.

“A doctor that makes such mistakes probably isn’t a great doctor. Yes, medicine is a rigorous and demanding field of study, but if he/she took shortcuts learning the language, shortcuts were probably taken in medical school as well.

“Regardless of the profession, the people who demonstrate excellent language skills telegraph the message they studied everything else just as carefully as they studied their language.”

“Wow, I wish I had known that years ago! How can I upgrade my language skills?”

“That’s a good question. Do you know any English teachers?”

“My cousin Marcia. I think she’s good; she’s always correcting me.”

“Perfect! Get her to keep it up. Ask her to recommend a good grammar book and a vocabulary book. Admittedly, both subjects are boring, but those who take the trouble to learn them reap great rewards.

“You might also want to read some great literature, not some of the junk that comes out today. Get your cousin to recommend some of her favorites, possibly Hemingway, Faulkner and others. You can’t help but learn the use of the language, and it’s not a substitute for learning the rules, but it helps, and it’s a lot more fun. 

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or