I stumbled across a website recently called Write to the Point by Wordrake. It’s target market consists of attorneys, selling them Wordrake software that corrects common writing errors.
What interest me is their daily tip to improving your writing. For any that have read my article, Language Matters, you know I find this important. One of the three justifications for not caring about language errors is that the point of language is to communicate, so as long as the message is communicated, there’s no problem. As their tip on the serial comma (a.k.a., Oxford comma) demonstrates, though, language errors, especially in writing, tend to hinder communication, and all of you that have ever posted to the internet know this to be true. On the internet, misunderstanding is the rule, not the exception. Even when speaking, a misplaced modifier — especially “not” — in a 2-second statement often receives requests from the listener for a 1-minute clarification. How this doesn’t convince you to correct your writing is beyond me. It’s in your own selfish interest to do so.
Do yourself a favor: Sign up for their daily tips. How could it possible hurt? Besides, if you learn enough from the tips, perhaps you won’t need the software.
Follow me on Twitter @RobertEBodine
A while back, I posted the following to Twitter (abridged), Google+, and Facebook:
Person in front of me is asked, “How’s school going?” He responds, “It’s going good.” I’m thinking, “Apparently not.” Knowing how to speak English properly is a curse. My head hurts constant . . . errrr, I mean constantly, and it hurts allot . . . errrrr, a lot.
This, of course, was met with resistance. People are very insecure by nature, and, not coincidentally, they’re internet tough guys when they get a chance to generate drama. To start, everyone missed the point of the post, which is that I constantly hear grammatical errors, and it’s maddening. I wasn’t judging the guy at all. I was simply pointing out that very few errors get past me, and I’m always correcting people’s words in my head. Wouldn’t that drive you nuts?
Moving on, as an attorney and native East Coaster, I like to argue, so I went ahead and engaged one of the responders that I felt was being polite in his disagreement. To summarize, he pointed out that all that mattered was that the message was communicated, and that because he was speaking, rather than writing, the message was much more likely to be received. In other words, he recited two of the three basic tenets of those that defend the mangling of our language:
- 1. If we’re communicating, then mission accomplished.
- 2. It is easier to infer true meaning from the spoken word than the written word, so more leeway should be given with speech.
He forgot the third tenet:
- 3. Language constantly evolves.
My response then summarized a conversation I had with a friend of mine that addressed the exact problem demonstrated by the student-speaker from my experience, to wit: using adjectives as adverbs. My friend, Matt, defended the disappearance of adverbs, citing all three of those tenets. My response was simply, “You smell bad.”
Being my friend, Matt laughed off the insult and called me an asshole or something, but I pretended not to understand and asked why he thought I was insulting him. You see, Matt suffered traumatic brain injury when an improvised explosive device blew up his vehicle in Iraq. While his case is relatively mild, one of the consequences of his condition is that he’s anosmic (i.e., he has no sense of smell). I was simply trying to empathize with him on his condition. Despite the fact that I was using the second simplest phrase in the English language (besides phrases like, “I am”), his reaction went from one of thanks to one of taking offense (in jest of course). This occurred simply because I was too lazy to add the suffix, “ly,” to my adjective. That’s quite a swing in understanding for so simple a statement, wouldn’t you say?
An Even Better Example: Misplaced Modifiers
When I say to you, “All liquids are not beers,” you know what I mean. I’m actually trying to say, “Not all liquids are beers.” In other words, I’m not trying to say that beer isn’t a liquid (an obvious misstatement). I’m instead trying to say that beers are liquids (the exact opposite of what I technically said), but they aren’t the only liquids. Soda, water, gasoline, and so many others aren’t beers, but they are liquids nevertheless. In speech, and even in writing, we’ll correct the error automatically, in part because we make the same mistakes ourselves. This is how most of us speak.
So why is misplacing “not” a problem? Well, the example I gave is trivial. In fact, it’s so trivial, you may never have the need to say it. On the other hand, what if I’m discussing quantum mechanics with you? Most of you would run from such a conversation, but stay with me. Pretend you care about quantum mechanics. If I say, “All bosons are not neutrinos,” am I correct? What if I’m a physics professor that knows the answer and is trying to teach this to you? What am I trying to teach you? Are neutrinos a subset of bosons, or are neutrinos not in that group at all? Because the statement is not trivial, and thus more important to say, it’s vital that I get it right, but also vital that you understand what I say when I do get it right. That means that we both must understand and properly speak English. If either one of us is a point of failure in that regard, communication fails, and so do you on the physics exam.
If you think this post has been torture, be thankful I spared you discussions on misplacing “only” and misusing the past tense in the subjunctive mood. Instead, I give you one of my favorite quotes addressing the latter, which most Americans don’t truly seem to understand.
Ask the Dodo Birds What They Think of Evolution
Yes, language is evolving, but evolution can go in both directions. Although there will be phrases that are always understood (for now), the new rules being established create a systemic problem that will make communication difficult in enough situations as to represent a problem. Clearly, when linguistic evolution impedes communication of even the simplest spoken phrases, you’ve violated the first two tenets that justify this evolution. In other words, any argument for this “evolution” is self-destructive. Moreover, this is adding to a problem that will never be fixed: typos. Proper English has become a habit for me, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if you pored over this post and didn’t find a single error even though I wasn’t particularly careful — I’m not being paid to write this — but on the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found an error or two. We all make mistakes. There’s no reason to add to that by adopting rules that further impede communication.
Whether you agree with me or not, it should count for something that you all understand exactly what I’m trying to say (unless your knowledge of the English language has deteriorated so badly that you almost aren’t speaking English anymore). Unfortunately, it’s also become my curse, which was the point of the original status update.
We’re Writing More
Now consider this: With the internet upon us, people are speaking much less, shifting our communications to the written word. (If you have any reading comprehension skills left, you realize that I’m not making a statement as to whether the majority of communication is now in writing.) According to the second tenet, that means that the problem is getting worse. If you don’t believe me, look to your own experiences instead. Each of us with any significant internet time has a number of examples of misunderstandings from reading emails and posts like this one. (See my last post on this blog for an example.) For all I know, some of you are taking offense to this when there is absolutely none intended. Some of that could have been avoided simply by using boldface or surrounding asterisks to emphasize a word or two. Unfortunately, with a 140-character limit, your bytes are apparently too precious to waste on such trivial matters as not accidentally telling someone to kiss your ass. My original post uses such shorthand, so I don’t intend to overstate my argument here by condemning slang or shorthand, but note well that much of this is based entirely in laziness, not character limits, and fostering that laziness makes misunderstandings even more likely.
I Know That I Don’t Matter
Just like the characters in Idiocracy, many of you may be reading this as arrogant, but I assure you I know exactly how much my views matter. Whether you accept this argument or not, I know it’s irrelevant. These changes to language, for better or for worse, are happening, and nothing I say or write will change that. However, you should be aware of, and prepared for, the consequences. If you think we already have too many lawsuits, lost friendships, and uncivil discourse, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You better brace yourself for the coming storm of defamation and emotional distress lawsuits, while simultaneously giving up hope that political discourse will become more civil. Be very careful as to how you word things, as people will take offense to your most innocent statements. I suggest you all buy an Oxford American Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style. I, on the other hand, am simply going to start drinking heavily.