grammar police

Here’s the thing about grammar: it’s weird, sometimes difficult, and can be full of seemingly redundant and unnecessary rules.

But you know what else is weird, sometimes difficult, and full of seemingly redundant and unnecessary rules? Life. Monopoly. Economics. Dog parks.

Nothing is perfect. Such is the curse of our flawed reality. Does this mean we do away with every little thing we can’t perfect, cannot synthesize into some refined, sugar-spun, streamlined version of itself? No. We wouldn’t be left with much.

As my friend, officemate, and fellow writer Daniel Ford writes in his manifesto on spelling and grammar: times are changing. We communicate through services that give us limited characters to get our point across, and our messages flicker on iPhone and Blackberry screens, quickly down Twitter feeds, across Gchat windows, and in Pinterest captions. We’ve learned to adapt our ways of writing–to drp vowls, shorten pronouns, embrace acronyms. We don’t laugh, but we lol. We don’t forget, but we n/m. We will def meet u after the prty l8r.

But just because we’ve learned HOW to change, doesn’t mean we should–full-stop. Spelling and grammar are important because they make things clear, and trying your best to follow the rules shows a level of respect, not only for your reader, but for your writing itself.

Prior to the codification of the English language, spelling and grammar in English were a train wreck. A quote from 1530 says it all: “Oure language is also so dyuerse in it selfe that the commen maner of spekynge in Englysshe of some contre can skante [scarcely] be vnderstondid in som other contre of the same lond.” Multifarious spelling variations, sentence constructions, and overall cadences made understanding written language difficult, as—from a modern viewpoint—the written word of the time seemed to exist the same as a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Robert Lowth, who Wikipedia calls “the author of one of the most influential textbooks of English grammar,” noted, “the principal design of a Grammar of any Language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that Language, and to enable us to judge of every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not.” Daniel quotes Anne Trube, who similarly says, “Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Period. There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules.” This is a tornado of contradiction to me. If the rules exist to make things clear, why is following them snobbish, rather than just striving for accuracy to aid communication?

Daniel argues that worrying over spelling and grammar throws a wrench into a worker’s day, that the time spent making sure commas are right and words are spelled out in full could be used doing more significant, productive tasks. But while comma placement might not be crucial to an understanding of an email and the occasional typo hardly makes a dent in its readability, I believe that, like Lowth, following grammar and spelling rules shows an important sense of propriety for one’s work, one that is still appreciated in 2012, even if we’re breaking those same rules on Twitter, the no-man’s-land of grammar.

While the lightning fast speed of the Internet is extremely helpful the mindset it puts us in can easily be as detrimental as it is productive, especially in terms of quality. How many times have you sent out an email with a crucial error just because you didn’t double-check? How many times have you noticed a nonsensical Tweet long after it sifted down your feed? Just because we’d prefer to have things sooner rather than later, doesn’t mean we also want to sacrifice quality. And in most cases, proper spelling and grammar denote quality, because it shows we’re trying.

The Wired article he points to makes a case against autocorrect, the famed service responsible for many an unintentionally hilarious, absurd, or misdirected text message or email. The thing about autocorrect is—you have power over the machine. People who blame autocorrect for more than the occasional mistake are fooling themselves. If you read a text before you send it, you can easily notice the strange things autocorrect likes to transform our typos into. Again, it’s about speed and quality control. We like to bang out a text in as few seconds as possible, even if that means telling your grandma you “licked socks for breakfast” instead of “bought sinks for the basement.” We’re so into sending, we don’t think about what we write, and I don’t necessarily believe spelling or grammar should change because of that.

A misspelled email or a mistaken homophone doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, worker, colleague, or even writer, but it does often show that you’re not paying attention. I don’t deny that Daniel is right to say that paying attention to grammar isn’t and shouldn’t be everyone’s number one priority, but it helps. Every artist has an arsenal of tools at his or her disposal, but a GOOD artist knows not just how to use a tool, but the right tool to use at the right time. I don’t think anyone will judge you for using “U” instead of “You” on Twitter, or in a text message to your mom, because of the nature of the exchange, but just as a painter wouldn’t use a chisel to do a watercolor, a conscientious employee wouldn’t think it best to email a boss “meat me in da confirence rm l8r.” This kind of exchange can slow down work even more than taking the time to write a clear email would have.

A well-written, well-spelled, well-structured letter, email, document, or resume shows a level of respect on the side of the writer, just like a firm handshake or a pressed suit vs. jeans, last night’s T-shirt, and a lackluster fist bump.

I like that the standardization of English forces us to slow down, look at what we’ve written, examine, check, replace and reconfigure. It gives us a chance to think—and then re-think—about what we want to say and how we want to say it, and most of the time, it does what it was designed to do: getting across the right message.

[Image: didbygraham]

(To read the post that inspired this rebuttal, please read “I Ain’t Speling Good No More: Why We Need New Rules for Language.“)