Thursday, September 15, 2011

English Lesson: Why bother?

So I had an interesting thread on Facebook. Improper use of language irritates me. Most things are not that difficult and I don't understand why people write so abysmally. I'm not referring to complicated things, just simple things that anyone who went to school should know.

Blatant errors bother me even more when they are committed by people who should strive to do better. For instance, anyone who teaches a child should know the basics. Or care enough to learn them. People who are arrogant about their intelligence should know how to use words properly. Anyone who cares about getting the true meaning of something written should understand that word choice matters. And, for crying out loud, if you are promoting yourself as an editor/proofreader, your business advertisement should be free of errors.

Last night I couldn't stop myself from posting about a new trend I've seen. I'll save the specifics for a later post. But it has cropped up in so many places that I had to inquire of my editor/English major husband if I had been wrong all these years. He, and a few others, assured me I hadn't.

So when I saw it in an ad for editing services, I had to comment. Yes, on Facebook. I got an interesting reply. Someone said that while rewording would make it clearer, it was still understandable as it was. Dialect was also mentioned as an excuse.

This started me thinking. Do things like grammar, punctuation and word choice really matter? I believe they do. Here are a few reasons why.

1) Understanding great written works. I'm not talking about the latest romance novel or thriller, although it is possible that those authors also use deliberate language. I'm referring to books that are crafted. Where the writer knows exactly what he is intending to say. (I am using the grammatically correct "he" to avoid the incorrect "they" or the cumbersome "s/he." It is not meant to imply that only men can write well.) For those wondering, this includes the Bible. A change of one word can alter the meaning. Example: A lord versus the Lord. So can any number of "little" things that are often dismissed as inconsequential. For a crude example on capitalization I offer this sentence from a friend's wall: "Capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse." Get it?

2) Writing great works. Or even not-so-great ones. There are many great things that can be done with language. But you can only do these things by understanding language and how to use it. Sadly, it will only matter if those reading it understand as well. Subtlety and nuance can only be communicated through careful use of language. It offers a way for an author to mislead the readers, without lying to them. Then when the reader is surprised and goes back to gather evidence about the plot not making sense, none can be found. (What? Oh, I'm the only one who does that? Okay.) Sadly, much of the time I do find things that don't work. Even more depressing, the trick usually would have worked by  restructuring certain passages without changing the story at all. 

3) Catering to the lowest common denominator is a bad idea. "Who cares? It doesn't matter as long as we agree it doesn't matter. They're just words." Let's see what else we can apply this to. Finances: Why should I pay my bills when others just default? I think our economy speaks for itself. Morals: Why should I abstain from ______ when my culture doesn't condemn such behavior? We need only to look at how our country is falling apart to answer that. 

In the words of every parent on any TV show, "If your friends jumped off a cliff would you do it too?"

4) The job market. While the number of employers who care about such skills may be dwindling, they are still out there. Communication is important. Those who recognize good writing are likely to admire it and judge the author as intelligent. The reverse is also true. Personally, I have a difficult time accepting the content if the form is flawed. So if you want me to think that you are intelligent and pay attention to what you have to say, you had better communicate effectively. That means using words that actually mean what you are using them to mean, spell things correctly, punctuate your sentences for clarity, use proper grammar and proofread.

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