Spelling, grammar, and public writing


in Internet matters, Writing

Flowers in Woodstock

Talking to people about some of the essay editing I have been doing, in various capacities, I find that there are two general positions when it comes to grammatical and typographical errors. Most people fit pretty squarely into one or the other group, and a fair amount of animosity seems to fly between the two. Normally, my impulse is to call for restraint in in the prosecution of such campaigns. In this case, however, I think the argument in favour of the second position is quite clear-cut.

The first group feels that the important thing is just making clear what you mean. Misspelling a proper name, using the wrong homonym (its v. it’s), and similar errors are not of great consequence, because anyone can tell what you meant. I have some sympathy for this view, particularly because it can lay some claim to being anti-exclusionary. English is a weird language and it is hard to learn. A lot can be said for tolerating those who are in the process of doing so. The internet and other venues are richer for their contributions, and it is unreasonable to expect perfect use of language from those who are still getting used to it. Indeed, I would be extremely hard pressed to write a perfect post or comment in French.

At the same time, those who are capable of writing proper English have little excuse not to do so, whether online or in a different context. The second group – to which I belong – sees writing properly as a duty the writer owes to their audience. To just throw unedited text at people is disrespectful, because it shows that you don’t care enough about them to present them with something polished. I am not talking here about Joyce or e.e. cummings bending the rules – that is the privilege of anyone who knows them well enough to toy with them. A style deliberately different from standard English is not comparable to carelessly written English. I am talking about those people who can’t be bothered to check their spelling and read over what they wrote to make sure it accords with the basic conventions of English grammar. With built-in spellchecking and nearly effortless editing fundamental to modern word processing, there is really no excuse.

A secondary benefit is that taking the time to re-read what you’ve composed lets you better make sure that you aren’t about to put something malformed or uninformed into a public place, where it may embarrass you to many people, and where it may be hard to remove.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

B July 21, 2006 at 4:59 pm

I would call you a fascistic pedant if I didn’t think you were essentially correct.

Writing properly is simply a matter of respect for your audience.

Anonymous July 21, 2006 at 5:15 pm

You’re not talking about the evolution of language over time, I take it. Adopting ‘Google’ as a verb is one thing, writing like this is quite another:

An incident ocured when a women went to sit in a chair and something was poking her. She then got up and found that it was a needle with a little note at the end. It said, “Welcome to the real world, your HIV positive.” Doctors tested the needle and it was HIV positive. BE CAREFUL GOING TO THE MOVIES!!! When you go to the movies, please check your seat. This message is posted to make everyone aware of this danger. Beware PLEASE FORWARD TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!!

Email is probably the worst culprit, in terms of sloppy language use. Just try working in an office.

Anonymous July 21, 2006 at 5:26 pm
Meghan July 21, 2006 at 7:18 pm

I am a firmly entrenched second group member, and always will be. It disappoints me when people don’t take the time to re-read what they’ve written before exhibiting it to an audience. If your ideas are brilliant, but poorly described, what you are saying won’t be anywhere near as effective as someone who can write coherently.

Another facet of this problem is the businesses who publish signs with grammatical errors and mis-spellings. If you are going to pay to have a sign created, couldn’t you at least glance over it first?

Milan July 21, 2006 at 7:28 pm


I agree about the signs, though people who get really up in arms about it (Lynne Truss comes to mind) do feed the stereotype that everyone who cares about grammar is excessively uptight.

Alex Waterston July 22, 2006 at 12:28 pm

My friend, do you actually ever get any fanny?

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