Have you ever gotten a message from someone via a text or e-mail or post on Facebook that was illegible? One that you couldn’t understand, or one you misinterpreted because you couldn’t read it? Or perhaps you receive messages like this on a regular basis. “How is that possible?” some may ask. After all, with the advent of typing, you don’t need to worry about translating bad handwriting, so how could you not read a typed message?
Easily. If the person sending you the message failed to capitalize, punctuation, or write a grammatically correct sentence, you honestly may not be able to understand what they said, regardless of your intelligence. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over the web, the decline of the capital letter, the lack of any punctuation beyond the exclamation point, the abysmal state of spelling. More and more sentences are sent with net-speak abbreviations rather than complete thoughts. And, what’s worse, nine times out of ten, if you correct any of these mistakes, you will be called “a grammar Nazi.”
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been called that. I haven’t as often as some, but some people have gotten snippy with me for correcting their grammar, their spelling, or their punctuation. Some friends of mine have been yelled at when they ask for clarification on a message they could not understand, as if being unable to decipher net-gibberish was a fault of their intelligence not the sender’s laziness. The inability to communicate clearly is brushed off as being “not a big deal.” This infuriates me.
Because grammar matters!
1) Capitalization Tells The Reader What Is Important!
I address this one first because it’s low on my list of priorities. Capitalization tends to be the first thing to go on the net. To be honest, when I’m having a fast-paced conversation on AIM, I do tend to get sloppy with my capitalization. “I” becomes “i” and the only thing I do remember to capitalize is a proper name. (The other side of the extreme is using all caps which doesn’t help clarify what you said. All it means is that you are shouting gibberish, which is hardly helpful.) However, using capitals is important because it lets the reader know that this word or phrase is particularly important or set apart from the rest of the text. This is especially important when you are talking about titles of books, songs, artists, artwork, etc. It can also work with the period to let the reader know where sentences start and stop. However, as long as your punctuation is correct, capitals are the least of writing offenses.
2) Punctuation Changes What You Are Saying And How You Say It!
I cannot stress how important punctuation is for proper communication. People underestimate and underrate it, as if the rules of punctuation were created in a completely arbitrary fashion. As if commas and periods were optional. Yet the lack of or misplacement of punctuation marks can completely change the very meaning of your words. For example, look at these two sentences:
“A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
“A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
Each sentence has the same words in the same order. But the punctuation makes the meanings of the sentences completely different.
The placement of punctuation also matters because that can change the meaning as well. Take a look at these examples:
See the difference? The first letter is a declaration of love while the second refutes love, just by a simple replacement of punctuation. Both of these examples may feel a little stilted, but I hope it illustrates the point that punctuation, both type and placement, does matter. Both of these examples come from pages 9 and 10 of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a wonderful book about punctuation by Lynne Truss. By not punctuating correctly, you may be sending a message you didn’t intend. Or, if you have no punctuation at all, it is possible to be unable to read the sentence. Punctuation gives tonal and contextual clues you would find in voice tone, volume, facial expressions and body language that get lost in the translation to writing. We can’t see your face or hear your voice, so we rely on punctuation to give us those clues.
3) Spelling Matters!
There is simply no excuse for poor spelling. Unless you have a learning disability, there is no reason in the age of spell-check and Google that you should not be spelling words correctly. One might say, “Oh, but you know what I meant,” or “At least I tried.” Sorry, but a lot of spellings I see on the net are not anywhere near what they should be, and you may have tried, but you still failed. It is a poor reflection on your intelligence and education to have misspellings in your writing, especially in any business correspondence. I understand that everyone has typos from typing too quickly and hitting the “send” button too fast, but that can be easily rectified by slowing down just a little and rereading your words before sending them. Really, that isn’t too much to ask, especially in the name of clear communication. Anything worth saying is worth double-checking.
4) Grammar Rules Exist For A Reason!
Rules are there for a reason. Now, I remember disliking grammar class and, to be frank, I couldn’t diagram a sentence if my life depended on it. I don’t know all the name of the different parts of speech or what a participle is. Still, there are some basic grammar rules that should be instinctive in a native English-speaker. Again, you are only excused if you have a learning disability or aren’t a native speaker, but again, you should make that clear from the start and not get mad when people don’t understand you. In a sentence, you need to have a subject and a predicate. The subject is who or what is doing something and the predicate is what is happening. The subject is usually a noun, a person place or thing. The predicate is usually a verb, an action or state of being. “I exist” is a very short example of a sentence subject/predicate structure. “I” is the subject, the noun. “Exist” is the predicate, the action that “I” is doing or being. This is very simple. THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR IGNORANCE. It is basic, grade school stuff that in our land of “free” public education you should already have been exposed to and internalized. The fact that our illiteracy rates are sky-high is just one sign of how very broken our educational system is. If you didn’t learn it in school, there are plenty of books at your local library that can help. Now, granted, some grammar has lee-way. When you are writing a story, sometimes fragments are necessary to achieve a certain effect, or you are writing dialogue and that is how people talk. But the difference is that this is a conscious artistic choice, not the result of ignorance.
5) Bad Manners And Shifting Responsibility!
There seems to be a growing, disturbing trend in online communication these days. The responsibility of understand has been moved from the sender to the reader. It used to be that if someone wrote to you and you didn’t understand them, that was because the person did not state themselves clearly. They are responsible for their writing’s clarity. Now, if someone sends you something unintelligible, you, as the reader, are expected to make sense of it, and if you can’t or ask for clarification then you are automatically stupid or a grammar Nazi or a bitch/bastard. If you can’t understand what someone else wrote, then somehow it is your fault, not theirs. You are expected to be psychic and to untangle what they meant or risk a screaming match. This, quite frankly, is bullshit. When you write to someone, you, the writer, are the one trying to communicate, to convey an idea. If you fail, that’s your fault and you should try again, especially if the reader asks you, nicely, to clarify.
For those of us who are conscious of correct grammar, dealing with people who don’t care about it is very frustrating, especially when we’re always made out to be the bad guys. I’m not saying that you should jump down someone’s throat at the sight of a misplaced comma. We all make mistakes. It’s the repeat offenders that make us want to tear out their spleens and play street hockey with it. So, when you see improper grammar, be respectful when you correct it. Most of the time you will be met with ridicule, so chose your battles wisely and try to avoid massive arguments with people who react badly to your corrections. It’s a battle you probably won’t win, but it’s good to make a stand supporting the English language and point out where it has been misused. Hopefully someone will benefit.