I’m going to raise the bar.
For years, I’ve seen these quizzes fly around Facebook, and before that email, to test whether you know the difference between homonynms and where to put apostrophes. You know what I’m talking about: “you are” is properly shortened to “you’re,” while the possessive for the second person is “your.” “They’re” dealing with “their” issues. “It’s” high time we rebuke society for “its” lack of attention paid to grammatical issues. It’s time we “affect” some concern for the “effect” of inadequate English education. The Internet is an amusing arena sometimes, because I swear that half the time I see someone rebuked for poor grammar, there is a spelling or grammatical mistake in the rebuke – “Thats not the right spelling of they’re.”
Let’s establish one thing up front: the purpose of language is to be understood. That is an important element to anything else I say in this post. Ultimately, if someone sends me an email that says “R U gng 2 be l8?”, I’ll furrow my brows and think uncharitable thoughts … and then answer the question. Mission accomplished. So I’m not talking to my drugged out cousin for whom “weed” is one of 25 words in his quiver, or the kids in the Scout troop with whom I used to volunteer, who couldn’t put together a sentence any faster or better than they could start a fire with a battery and steel wool.
The corollary to this, and this is real, is that many people don’t claim to be good at English. Language is like anything else. It’s a medium in which some excel, and those who do learn to live with the fact that they are not going to find that everyone communicates in the same way. Life is a series of give and take with the things you are and are not good at, and the talented among us figure out early on that you have to bend a little on the stuff you are good at if you have any moral hope of people giving you a break on the things at which you aren’t. Example: I have a remarkably bad memory; sometimes I have to accept that I have to find something interesting to add to the conversation the second time around, or people will stop being willing to indulge my need to talk about it again.
All the same, I have a couple of things to get off my chest, things that have been bothering me. You don’t get to memorize rules and think that makes you good at something. That makes you *not bad*. Facility – the ability to use – is what makes you good at something. The lack of spelling or grammatical errors don’t make you interesting, or thought-provoking. They may make you less offensive to that portion of your audience that would catch that, but in the immortal intent of William Shakespeare the mundane, phrased any other way, would smell as dull.
So the first rule I would promote as to writing would be the same thing with which I would charge a doctor: do no wrong. Everyone’s going to – mistakes happen in the heat of battle. I understand that most of the world uses spellcheck (I don’t, because I don’t trust it, or auto-replace) and that is going to let homonyms or near-misses through. Accept that it is going to be a part of composition sometimes, and when it’s part of someone else’s … move the hell on. I honestly think pointing out typos in someone else’s writing, unsolicited, is kind of like announcing that that their underwear is showing. They would have figured it out if they’d looked in the mirror, but they didn’t. They went out in public that way. Analogize to toilet paper streaming from the back of their waistband and let it go.
There’s a second rule I would propose, and this one is for all those who put a sentence together regardless of whether they know the rules of grammar. For Pete’s sake, don’t use a word that you don’t understand. You don’t sound smart while misusing a word. I’m not referring to the age-old affect/effect issue. Yes, people use the wrong word in that case, but my point is trying to bring in ten-cent words when you haven’t earned them. Stop it. I held my tongue through five years of knowing my ex-girlfriend, who frequently averred that she isn’t “adverse” to things. None of those things were on the other side of a chess board or a paintball field. While not technically wrong, I think she was telling me that she wasn’t “averse” to things, meaning a matter of preference.
Refusal to abuse contractions, homonyms and vocabulary are minimum requirements to be literate, not proof that you are third or fourth in line for a Nobel prize for Literature. They are the basics. I expect to see an immaculate record out of people that want to criticize others’ use of language, and why would you set yourself up for that? Sometimes, I even like a spelling mistake here and there as evidence that someone cares more about the substance of what they’re saying than the form it takes. They’re eager enough to get their sentiment out that they don’t fully proof it. No, I’m not condoning, but I understand and I’m issuing a general back-off recommendation.
For the record, one of my own freakish talents is to glance at a full page of typewritten text and immediately pick out spelling errors. They almost literally glow on the surface of the page, but I’m well aware that proofreading doesn’t equate to anything worth reading. Also for the record, I’ve counted two places in this post where I would add commas on edit, and one place where I would remove one (proofreading is not as glaring for me on a monitor). I’m keeping mum about the spelling errors I’m leaving alone, but have fun with that treasure hunt. My purpose here is to express an idea – the point is the language and to thumb my nose at the snobs, not to tantalize them. I adore language and revel in it when it’s wielded well, but even more than that, I love when people have something to say and I understand them.