Does Spelling Matter?

What about grammar and punctuation? If it's your job to edit other people, you start to see the world with a critical eye. So IS it critical that you double check yourself all day every day?

First, go to your Facebook feed. Take a look at your friends. There are two types of people. The type that writes out a status in complete English, and the type that uses no capital letters, dubious spellings, and abbreviations that mean nothing to the first group. Then, the first group makes sure to correct the second group. *they’re. *your. *Finland.

You can search for lists of the most atrocious and hilarious malapropisms. (And I love them! I do! Even as I shake my head at how people seem to be losing a basic grasp of the English language.)

Here’s the thing, though. There’s a whole generation (a younger generation than we old-timers, sigh) for whom these abbreviations and quick communications features are the norm. Treat it as a second language, albeit one with fewer rules – a pidgin maybe!

So in the “real world,” does your spelling matter? Does your grammar? When you’re talking with friends, do they understand you? So do to/two/too or they’re/their/there or loose/lose matter if you get the meaning behind the sentence? They didn’t have formalized spelling in the 17th Century and people still managed to decipher the letters they received (even if they seem like coded scrawls to us now, with their capital letters and words that appear to mean nothing).

When DO the Rules Matter??

  • In professional correspondence. When you’re texting your bestie, you can use those shorthand expressions: Gr8, YOLO, ICYMI, TMI…pick your favorite. When you’re writing ANY kind of work letter, whether the old-fashioned way or over email, these are not acceptable. In fact, I’ve had several people use “VR” (very respectfully) as their closing, which is a throwback abbreviation from before text speak. In fact, I don’t think abbreviating it IS very respectful, and would rather nothing at all than that! Likewise, I’ve seen smiley faces, incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, and generally lax attention when it comes to the letter form. If you’re representing your business, be a GOOD example.

  • When it comes to your novel. If you are writing in dialect, you can bend the rules. But there are very few cases where the author can sustain a dialect for the whole book, not just the dialog between characters, and keep the reader interested without their eyes going crossed. (Think Mark Twain.) My number one rule of editing isn’t to make sure that everything follows the Chicago Manual of Style. Every rule has an exception. My goal is to make sure the grammar and punctuation are right so the reader doesn’t even notice them. Commas are there to give you a natural place to pause. When editors get “comma happy,” it can sound like William Shatner is narrating.

  • When you want to be sure of getting your point across. Back to the 17th Century. With the invention of the dictionary, if I’m remembering my high school English classes correctly, people now had the definitive answer on how a word was spelled and what it meant. All of the rules of language that have developed are there in order to make communication easier, especially in the English language, which often doesn’t make sense at all. It’s all a matter of how you want to be perceived. If you’re ok ranting about poor customer service using all lowercase letters and no punctuation, and you think that will be taken seriously on social media, feel free not to worry about that pesky Shift key. But if you’re a teacher, with the future in your hands, and parents on your friends list, you might want to exemplify some of the lessons you give in class.

As language evolves (and it does! Think about the slang of the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Quote it to someone who was born after 2000 and see if they don’t laugh or look at you with a blank stare.) … Ahem, back to my point. As language evolves, we may see that many things have entered our vocabulary that didn’t used to be there. For example, “Googled” as a verb. With autocorrect and spell check, do we really need to know how to spell Poughkeepsie? Or ingratiate? Or delicatessen? Or can the little red squiggly lines do it for us? As computer technology advances, will we even type anymore, or just speak our wishes? “Computer, send a missive to General Adams.”

This past week, a friend and I both posted separately on Facebook about our grammar pet peeves…and both of us had typos in our posts…and both of us were vilified (maybe rightly so). If you’ve ever hit “Send” too soon without proofreading, you know the debilitating horror of a missing letter, a deleted phrase, or the wrong sentiment in the wrong place. But maybe we should extend a little grace to others if their grammar isn't perfect in a social setting...but get out the red pen or asterix (*) if we think our correction could go viral!

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