I hear people in publishing say, all the time, things like "You could have the best story in the world but if I see typos and bad sentence structure right off the bat I'm going to pass." Apparently that's not always true.
Typos? Goodness, no! It's not true. It's not even close to true. For me. Maybe there are agents out there who read with a proverbial red pen in hand at all times, but I very much doubt that's the majority. In a query letter, sure, it will make me respect you a little less. (However, if you use advanced punctuation correctly, or--be still my little heart, a comma-dash--I'll immediately like you.)
Bad sentence structure...well, that's a little more difficult. We are, after all, trying to make an educated guess about the writing in your manuscript. One bad sentence among many great ones will most likely not ruin your chances--but, of course, it's not advisable.
Errors are much worse in queries than in partials, manuscripts and proposals. First of all, they're shorter, so a problem is easier to spot. Second, they're your first impression--you really, really, really should try to get it right.
But here's the other side of that. Allow me to share something remarkably unfair about publishing. Let's say that you've spent the last five years writing a book that is without a single error. You've combed that thing so closely, you would bet your favorite pen, your beloved desk and your computer on its being error-free.
Then an author of absurd talent hands in a draft that has typos, misspellings, and errors. It needs line edits and big edits (take out this character, re-order those scenes, cut 100 of your 500 pages).
And their book gets accepted. Yours doesn't.
Fortunately or unfortunately, line edits are easy to fix. That special something that makes a book, well, glow? That makes it moving and new and exciting and enjoyable and seem to radiate potential?
Not so easy to add.
(Can you imagine? I'd love it if Microsoft Word--or even Clippy--had an, "It looks like you're writing a pitch letter. Click below to make it glow!" tip.)
That said, the absurdly talented writer would still get rejections--lots of them. As I've mentioned before, there are agents who just won't bother with doing edits, or won't do heavy edits. We're always doing a mental calculation--how much we like the piece versus how much work it would be for us to get it into salable form.
We'd have to like something a lot if it's going to get that much work from us. Keep in mind that we're working on spec--we're taking a risk (of time--sometimes months) to work on your book, never knowing for sure if it'll actually sell and we'll get paid until after all our editorial work is done.
I've seen books at publishing houses--in fact, as an intern, I was given first pass at some of the corrections--that would make a smart sixth grader (or, well, me as a sixth grader) cry. Wrong form of "its/it's/there/their" everywhere--horrible, seemingly random comma placement--misspellings on every page. But the message and its information (it was nonfiction) were, overall, very good--and, believe it or not, there were some amazing sentences in there.
I saw the completed version in a bookstore many months later. Every error fixed. Looked like a very smart book. Very strange experience.
So, no. We'll lose some respect for you if you don't bother to learn that commas and semicolons are not interchangeable. It does lessen your chances of getting a Yes. If an agent is on the fence about a book--we seem to spend a lot of time on fences, since it's a business with few absolutes--and your manuscript is filled with errors, it's certainly not going to help.
For whatever reason, the best writers usually also have the best grasp of the language. They are also usually humble, and just seem just, well, nice over email.
But is an error an automatic rejection in a partial or proposal? No. Not at all.
For more on Clippy (Microsoft Word's paperclip-shaped assistant), this is Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!'s piece, "Clippy Must Die." Note that it gets very, very funny around 2:00, so go ahead and fast-forward. Turn up the sound! Also note what Clippy comes up with at minute 3:03. ("It looks like you're trying to write a novel. Would you like me to...")