Aug 09 2013
In this day and age, we read and write more than ever. The sheer variety and ubiquity of the internet has led to the written word dominating our lives. Our personal life, with texts and e-mail. Our social lives, with Facebook and all similar social media, and our cultural lives, with sites just like this one – thousands of them – forming the backbone of our cultural consciousness: the zeitgeist.
It’s great; everyone has a voice. It’s a nightmare; everyone has a voice. One of the unavoidable downsides of this is that we’re exposed to a much larger percentage of things that are badly written. And since most people learn the rules of the written language the same way they learn to speak it – by seeing and doing – there are way, way more opportunities to take in bad information.
This may seem like a minor point. So you wrote “then” when you should have written “than.” Big deal. One little error. And I’d agree with you. But this post isn’t about errors. It’s about mistakes. And like the saying goes, an error isn’t a mistake until you refuse to correct it. This is a post for the people who write on the internet, the people who don’t have the time or money to have their work professionally edited. This is a post about the little things. About taking the time to do something the right way. Because when our attention spans are short enough that we can barely get through a few paragraphs before we start skimming, every word counts.
First, let me tell you what this post is not about. It’s not a rant about people who conflate ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ (but, uh, don’t do that). It’s not a post about nitpicking. “Grammar Nazi” is a pretty loaded term. I mean, anytime you equate something or someone with a Nazi, you’re not exactly being calm and thoughtful. The mental picture of some elderly librarian-type gleefully cutting into someone’s writing with a red pen, pointing out all their typos, is not what I’m talking about.
Stick with me, guys. Look, here’s a boob! Two of them, in fact!
Everyone makes errors. Everyone has typos. Even the very best writers make about one mistake per 1000 words (a number that I absolutely made up, but is still probably true). Professional writers get their work professionally edited. There are people called line editors whose entire jobs consist of meticulously reading a manuscript and finding mistakes. Not content editors (that’s a whole different thing) but someone who goes line by line, trimming stray apostrophes and eviscerating dangling modifiers.
So, there’s nothing wrong with making an error. They happen, and if you’re the only one editing your work, they’re going to slip through. I’m sure there are several errors in this very piece. Errors are analogous to a slip of the tongue, like saying “I’ll take the ten-pound dog of bag food.” Easily forgivable.
Still with me? No, wait, stick around! Look, it’s the male equivalent of boobs!
No, what I’m talking about are mistakes. If errors are a slip of the tongue, mistakes are when you pronounce “library” without the “r,” or pronouncing “nuclear” like it has an extra “u.” I’m talking about things you don’t even think to question because you’ve seen them used a certain way. Insidious little nuggets of disinformation that spread, like a virus, until no one knows what the hell the word “ironic” actually means anymore. Or even worse, the wrong but somehow prevalent meaning of a word will slowly, bizarrely, creep around to the exact opposite of what it actually is, like in the case of poor, poor “nonplussed”.
So, why does all this matter? Why should you devote one iota of thought into using words correctly? Why should you care at all about the nuance of grammar? Here’s why:
1. If you don’t, you’ll look stupid
Not the most tactful way to say it. I suppose I could have gone with “your presentation will be sloppy,” or “people might regard your ideas with less merit if they aren’t presented in a professional manner.” But the fact of it is, you get the easy, simple stuff wrong and you come off like an idiot. When there’s no voice, no body language, when it’s just text, just these words that you’ve written? You conflate “it’s” with “its” and you might as well be writing in crayon. I worked at a real estate office that was hosting a get-together that included families. My co-worker typed up the flier, and at the top, it read:
“Parent’s are asked to supervise there children.” To me, the flier looked like this:
I once saw a breakfast menu that said, “Try our selection of fine tea’s.” I thought, OK, did they not have anyone edit their menu before they printed 50 of them? Are they this sloppy with their food, too? The place went out of business a couple months later. Was there a connection? I like to think so.
Point of the point: When you’re writing on the internet, when it’s impersonal and our attention spans are so short that most people are looking for a reason to stop reading, getting the easy stuff wrong can be a deal-breaker.
2. It wrecks the flow of your writing
Did your teachers talk about “tone” in your English classes? Mine did. Every great writer you love has tone coming out of his or her ears. Tone is a tricky thing to pin down. It’s made up of all the tricks in the writer’s toolbox like diction and pace and alliteration. It’s the way you can recognize a Douglas Adams quote even if he’s not named – because no one else writes like Douglas Adams.
Bad grammar muddies your tone. It’s the literary equivalent of mumbling. You might have style and panache, but if you use apostrophes like scatter-shot over random words with “s” in them, it’s going to take me out of the moment every time. It’s going to stop my eyes on the page, a hiccup, a break. Try to read the following paragraph smoothly – you can’t. Your eyes won’t let you. (Credit to Rob Kyff, San Jose Mercury News)
“The amount of grammer and usage error’s today is astounding. Not to mention spelling. If I was a teacher, I’d feel badly that less and less students seem to understand the basic principals of good writing. Neither the oldest high school students nor the youngest kindergartner know proper usage. A student often thinks they can depend on word processing programs to correct they’re errors. Know way!
Watching TV all the time, its easy to see why their having trouble. TV interferes with them studying and it’s strong affect on children has alot to due with their grades. There’s other factors, too, including the indifference of parents like you and I. A Mom or Dad often doesn’t know grammer themselves. We should tell are children to study hard like we did at they’re age and to watch less TV then their classmates.”
Does your brain hurt yet? Eyes twitching a little? Do you even remember individual sentences or their content?
It’s not nitpicking, it’s not something only intellectual snobs care about, it’s not something to take lightly. It’s the difference between being understood and being dismissed.
3. Nuance is important on its own
Remember, something as simple as a comma can be the difference between “I’m starving! Let’s eat, Grandpa!” and “I’m starving! Let’s eat Grandpa!”
4. Because this is the only way it’ll ever happen
It’s impossible to do in person. Correcting someone’s grammar or word usage is, for lack of a better term, a dick move. There’s no way that you don’t come off like a giant douchebag. The absolute best-case is that the conversation grinds awkwardly to a halt before starting back up again. “Man, look at that sky. The storm clouds are literally at the doorstep.” “We’re outside, there’s no door out here. You’re using ‘literally’ wrong.” (awkward pause) “Oh, yeah. Thanks.” (awkward pause) “So, you think it’s gonna rain?”
Can’t be done. You’ll come off as smug, or condescending, or a prick. Or a smug, condescending prick. The only forum where you can have an honest discussion and perhaps learn something is one like this. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. I’m not picking on anyone in particular, and there’s no back-and-forth argument where someone can get defensive. Just this.
So, what can you do?
Start with the basics. There are two (well, two-and-a-half) basic categories when it comes to common mistakes. And guess what? They’re all easy – so, so easy – to avoid. I’m not going to talk about split infinitives or whose/who/whom, or that/which. I’m talking about stuff like:
Homophones and Apostrophes
These overlap. The basic problem: Most people have much more experience speaking and listening than they do reading and writing. So words that sound the same get mixed up, all the time. The Golden Oldies: your/you’re, it’s/its, to/too/two, there/their/their. The heavy hitters: accept/except, affect/effect, then/than.
Some of them you just need to know, but some of them there’s no reason to ever get wrong. I mean, “it’s” always, always means “it is” or “it has.” But because of the apostrophe, and the fact that “apostrophe = belongs to” is a thing that people think, you see sentences all the damn time like “put the book back on it’s shelf.” Look, every time you write “it’s,” just expand it out to “it is” and see if your sentence still makes sense. Boom! Now you should never, ever, ever get that wrong again. Right? Right???
Apostrophes, by the way, are the weeds of the literary world. They’re constantly popping up where they have no business.
Stupid, stupid English. To use the same punctuation to denote both missing letters (contractions, such as “couldn’t”) and to indicate possession (“take the rat poison out of the kid’s lunchbox, please.”) is just stupid on a monumental level. If you want to get all technical about it, it’s really only doing one thing – replacing letters – but the letters it’s replacing in the case of it indicating possession have been phased out of the English language. Thanks a lot, English.
Go here to find out the whole story. No, seriously, go there. You might learn something.
Come on, you’re really not clicking on a site called “Dreaded Apostrophe?” Anyway. Problem number two:
For whatever reason, words do this. Someone gets the notion in his head that “bemused” kind of sounds like “amused,” so it must mean “kind of amused.” Sorry, wrong. (It means puzzled, confused, or bewildered) But then that someone used it in a newspaper article, and, like herpes, it just couldn’t be stopped. The only way to combat this is to use these words correctly, as often as you can. You should go out of your way to use these words because they need your help. And if anyone gives you any flak, just pull a Will McAvoy:
Some other words that could use your help:
Literally – this one’s easy. It means “without exaggeration or hyperbole.” It means you’re not speaking figuratively. If someone tells you, “I could literally eat a horse,” bring them a horse.
Peruse - “to study intently.” Flipping through a magazine isn’t perusing it. Intently pouring over your research notes, on the other hand, would be perusing. I hope you perused this article.
Pristine - “in its original state.” Most people use it as a synonym for “clean.” Close, but not quite. It may seem like a trivial difference, but we already have more than a few words that mean “clean” and nothing that captures the exact meaning of “pristine.”
Nonplussed - For whatever reason, it seems like it means “cool and collected.” It means almost the opposite, though – “startled to the point of speechlessness.”
Travesty - like the word bemused, I’m guessing this is one people get wrong because it just sounds like “tragedy”? That’s kind of depressing. It actually means a mockery, or a parody.
Tip of the iceberg, folks. For more on this, I recommend the following links:
So, debate time. Did I convince you that this is important? Are you ready to join the Mission to Civilize? Or do you not see what the big deal is? Next time you type out something to post on your blog, are you going to peruse (hah!) it and craft it until it has the clean lines of a racing yacht, or will you join the hordes of barbarians who do unspeakable things to apostrophes?
Sound off below.
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