Sticklers Unite!

I just finished reading Lynn Truss’ excellent book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. “Bestselling grammar book” is not a phrase you hear often, but this one is, and for a reason: in an impassioned, intellectual, and often quite humorous way, Truss makes her case for the importance of grammar and punctuation. The title comes from a joke whose punchline highlights the difference between “eats, shoots and leaves” (not a dinner guest you want in your house) and “eats shoots and leaves” (a panda).

Lynn Truss is probably at the forefront of the small subset of society that cares deeply and perhaps disproportionately about correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I too am part of this subset, and nodded along in complete agreement when I read, “To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence.”

Perhaps the best argument Truss makes for punctuation is that its function in written communication and in literature is crucial; see the above example about the panda. One comma changes the meaning of the sentence entirely. Likewise, “You’re home” and “Your home” also have completely different meanings (in the former, you are at home; in the latter, the home in question belongs to you).

Those who rely on spellcheck to catch these errors are sunk; as this Slate article points out, spellcheck software is great at catching “nonword” errors, like “hte” instead of “the”; however, it doesn’t understand context, so it won’t stop you from using “complement” when you mean “compliment.” Web browsers, for the moment, have surpassed some spellcheck software; in the past five years, according to the Slate article, “Web browsers have become better at spelling than most humans.” What a thought: maybe the next Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? will be Are You Smarter Than Your Browser? Someone call Ken Jennings.

The Importance of Spelling

An article in today’s Boston Globe covered a renewed interest in spelling; apparently, spelling has become “popular” again. Though many rely on spellcheck functions within word processing programs or e-mail, those can’t catch everything (and they often miss words that are spelled correctly but used in the wrong context – see The Oatmeal’s list of “10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling”). Correct spelling may not be crucial in instant messages or texts, but it is still important in academic and professional contexts – and according to the Globe article, kids are eager to learn words in order to compete in spelling bees.

One interesting point the article raised was that maybe spelling hasn’t deteriorated; maybe it was always this bad, but it was less public. UC Berkeley professor and linguist Geoffrey Nunberg said, “People never knew how to spell…They kept it a secret unless you saw their shopping lists or Christmas letter. You didn’t see the comments they wrote on other people’s blogs. You didn’t see their own blogs. I think a lot of what is perceived as the decline of spelling is just that we see a lot more spelling by a much wider range of people than we used to.’’

Grammar matters.

My dad sent me a link to this article today: “7 Grammar and Spelling Errors That Make You Look Dumb.” I highly recommend it if (a) you’re one of those people who cannot keep “your” and “you’re” straight, or (b) you’re one of those people who can keep “you’re” and “your” straight, and it drives you crazy that your friends, students, coworkers, etc. can’t. Within the article, there’s a link to Grammar Girl, which is also an excellent resource. Another one of my favorites is The Oatmeal, which delivers grammar lessons via comics (usually including dinosaurs or dolphins or something else amusing and lighthearted, yet memorable). Finally, there’s a great Hyperbole and a Half comic on the non-word “alot.”

Like it or not, grammar matters. I try to be non-judgmental and open-minded about a lot of things, but I absolutely judge based on grammar and spelling, and these resources allow me to admit that and justify it a little bit. In the grand scheme of things, is grammar important? Well, as the first article says, yes: potential employers and hiring committees are going to judge also. Should it be important is another question, but for now, it is. Everyone who has to write a cover letter or put together a resume is probably going to be judged on their grammar. Written communication is important – as is attention to detail, especially if you’re applying for a job. So if you’re in category (a), take advantage of the opportunity to learn from comics.

(c) The Oatmeal