Of course the easy (and lazy) way to write this blog post would be to just direct you to Lynne Truss’ 1997 book Eat Shoots and Leaves. There, done. The entire explanation for the reason the world still needs grammar, punctuation and correct spelling all bundled up in one marvellous little tome. And recounted with far more humour, verve and precision than I could ever hope to achieve.
But I’m not paid to merely point to the work of other, more successful, and definitely wittier writers, so here are a few random thoughts on the topic for those who find a whole book just too much of a challenge in their time-poor, oh-so-busy lives.
We’ve all heard the arguments: ‘Nobody talks like that anymore’. ‘I can get all the information I want to get across in 140 characters or less (and I don’t care if that should be ‘fewer’; it’s a whole extra character LOL).’ ‘I know what I mean, and so will my friends.’ ‘YOLO and I haven’t got time to be fiddling about with spell check.’ ‘Commas take time to put in and, bloody hell, I’m a busy person – I thought I already mentioned that.’ ‘Don’t get me started on apostrophes. They are just too damn confusing.’ ‘And who on earth knows or cares about the difference between a colon and a semi-colon?’
OK, where to start? How about the idea that no one cares if your grammar, spelling and punctuation skills are lousy? Here are a couple of indicators, right off the top of my head that, actually, quite a few people do care.
The first is the joke that went round Facebook recently. I’m paraphrasing wildly here. Man one: ‘I put up this great meme the other day and got 52 comments. How on earth did you do the same and come up with 21,000?’ Man two: ‘I deliberately included a spelling mistake.’
Or the other popular one (well, it seems to be really popular, judging by the number of people that have shared it with me. Oh wait a minute …). You know it, it’s the one that says, ‘Grammar, the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit’.
Still think apostrophes don’t matter? No, not you grocers – we gave up on you decades ago. Besides, it’s not your job to get this stuff right; I’m primarily talking to and about the people who communicate professionally via the written word.
Good grammar, good writing, correct spelling and punctuation are all about one thing: good manners (which, incidentally is the subject of Ms Truss’ second book, Talk to the Hand – ah, she can seriously do no wrong).
‘Good manners? What on earth are you talking about?’ I hear you cry. ‘Isn’t it all just the last refuge of the pedant? A smug and hermetic hole from which those holier-than-thou creeps who actually paid attention in school can lord it over the rest of us with their vilely superior, know-it-all ways?’
Well, no. And, for the record, I was pretty much asleep during school (yes, most of it) and cannot remember a single grammar lesson from my entire education; neither have I (full embarrassing disclosure alert) had so much as a day’s journalism training in my life. I did read a lot, however, and seemed to take in most of the rules and common sense concepts by osmosis. The rest I look up – it’s an ongoing process, but one anybody can undertake.
And my overriding belief is that good writing – and here I mean correct grammar and so forth, rather than content per se, which is a whole different kettle of halibut – is all about good manners. Yes, back to that. (And I’ll return to starting a sentence with an ‘and’ in a minute.) At their heart, good manners are about making things easier and more pleasant for other people. At its simplest level when it comes to writing that means one word: ‘clarity’. If you write well, use the correct punctuation and spelling, and are meticulous with your grammar, your meaning should be clear. Your readers shouldn’t be scratching their heads, trying to understand what you’re on about. If you’re dealing with dense and weighty topics, maybe then there is some excuse for writing sentences and paragraphs that need a couple of rereads before their meaning becomes clear. But only to a point. Some of the greatest writing in the world is that which can take a complicated concept and convey it in clear and simple language.
A carefully placed comma subconsciously tells a brain where to pause and take a quick breath. As it does this, a long and convoluted sentence falls into neatly packaged little bite-sized pieces that impart different bits of information individually, but then add up to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
The same with apostrophes (again, grocers, this doesn’t concern you. Just go back to your banana’s – you’re good at what you do; no one’s livelihood or, indeed, life depends on you understanding that those ‘nanas are just a plural, they don’t own anything and are only missing something in that second diminutive form). For the rest of us, there are a few simple rules. A couple. It’s really only the ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ that seems to break them. And it’s really easy to look up how that works. Takes five minutes and then you’ll know it for life. Trust me. And your manners will improve immediately.
“But I don’t care about manners; I told you, I’m a busy and very important person.” Really? Well, if you’re that important, there is something else that you may want to take into account. Authority.
You may not think that people pay much attention to the manner in which you deliver your information. But they really, really do. And if you want people to take you seriously and listen to what you have to say, you need to not distract them with silly typos, slapdash writing and juvenile mistakes. They will judge you. Oh my goodness, they will.
There was a diverting piece I found recently where this writer talked about receiving a text message, purportedly from ‘the authorities’, warning of an emergency situation in his locality. It talked of an ‘incedent’ and included several other mistakes.
The recipient thought about it and then dismissed the message – a genuine notice would not have contained so many mistakes, he thought. It’s like those Nigerian bank scam emails or the countless spam ones that may even be personally addressed to us, but the English of which is ‘creative’ at best. We see them, and dismiss them. This person doesn’t know what they’re talking about, we think.
Why would I buy something (other than banana’s) from/read more of the articles of/listen to the advice of/vote for this person? Their credibility is sorely lacking.
This even extends to consistency. There are many acceptable ways to write ‘square metres’. You can ‘m2’, you can ‘sqm’, you can go the full thing … none can be argued with. But if you use all three in the same article, or even magazine, it looks sloppy. It looks like the thing was thrown together with little care for presentation and a unified front on the part of the editorial team. Not quite the hanging offence of a dangling modifier (oh, don’t get me started), but significant nonetheless.
As long as you have consistency, all the other little areas of contention – to use the Oxford comma or not, to use single or double quotes, how to decide which titles to italicise – are all matters for personal taste or at least your organisation’s agreed-upon style guide.
There is so much content out there now, pouring out of every orifice the net and the printed world can come up with (oh, and did I mention it’s a good idea to be wary of mangled metaphors?). To be heard among that deafening roar of voices, shouting, ‘Read me! Look at this article! Try this one, not that one!’ you not only have to have something meaningful and engrossing to say, you must say it in a way that makes it easy, nay a pleasure, to read. A way that is clear and preferably concise (OK, I just failed that one). And the best way to do that is to learn some ground rules. Learn the fundamentals of grammar and punctuation. Learn your organisation’s style guide for consistency. Practise the fine art of writing and rewriting. Checking and editing your own work before you file it.
And then when you’ve done that and you know the rules, you can play with them a bit. You can start a sentence with ‘and’ – if your meaning’s still clear, and the sentence makes sense, there’s always a bit of leeway. Good writing is an art, after all, not a science.
And it can be the simplest thing that gives pleasure. Check out the website for the Blackman Hotel in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. On the homepage there is a little note spruiking the hotel’s late checkout times. The picture is a dishevelled man in a bathrobe. The copy: ‘Overstay. You’re welcome.’
Cute. And funny. And a perfect example of why punctuation still matters. And works. There will always be a stickler out there who’ll hound you for every split infinitive. But don’t worry about them; they’re still spending all their weekends visiting every grocer’s shop in the neighbourhood with a blackboard eraser and a piece of chalk…