Could you make a $70 million mistake?

Ten years ago today (June 19), the Associated Press reported that “A comma in the wrong place of a sales contract cost Lockheed Martin Corp. $70 million” (from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 19, 1999).

Later that year, on September 30, 1999, preliminary findings about the disintegration of the Mars Polar Lander indicated that the disaster was caused by poor communication: One team used English units while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation.

These two incidents have one common thread:

Communication errors can cost businesses and taxpayers a lot of money.

That’s why I was frustrated to read the blog post “Good grammar might derail your career.” The blogger claims that it doesn’t matter if you use the right form of “its” or “it’s”: Just let the reader figure it out. Further, the author insists: “Why do we need to spend our brain power learning the rules of grammar if it is not interesting to us? Why not focus on what we like?”

This reminds me of a letter I recently received as a board member of our homeowners’ association. Because the board was contemplating a smoking ban in public areas of our condo grounds, we asked our owners to share their thoughts with us. One young smoker said:

“I do not wish the scents and the smoke of burning tobacco to build up and to linger inside. Smoking inside my home or in another enclosed space would cause me, by default, to inhale far more smoke and for a much longer period of time than smoking outside subjects me to…I recognize that other people, especially non-smokers, would not want tobacco smoke drifting into their home; for that matter, I don’t want it inside my own home either! …complainants have a very simple, direct solution available [when I am smoking on my deck]: shut the door or window.”

I think this smoker’s startling conclusion that everyone else must adapt to his smoking behavior is similar to the blogger’s demand that the reader should figure out what the writer means. The smoker demands that neighbors retreat indoors and shut their doors and windows so he can smoke at will. The blogger wants the reader to substitute the right words and put in the appropriate punctuation because she doesn’t want to do this work herself.

Both arguments annoy me. Now it is MY job to avoid secondhand smoke by sweltering in a hot condo with no breeze possible? To punctuate someone else’s writing? Such poor writing will cause me to derail at the error and have to backtrack to correct the sentence, then read on. That takes more of MY time, and quickly, I will give up because it is so irritating.

I believe that the writer is always responsible for the message–all of it. If I want readers to understand and act on my writing, I must give them a quality document that they can read in the shortest possible time and can comprehend instantly. If I’m sloppy with my language, the best outcome I can expect is that readers will eventually stop reading my text. The worst outcome is that my errors may actually cost money, or worse, lives.

(The responses to the blog mentioned above seem mostly critical of the blogger’s position. And, by the way, we voted unanimously to ban smoking in common areas of our property.)

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