Say What You Mean

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Several weeks ago, I was listening to the radio on my way home from work.  Two talk DJs were discussing whether or not spelling was important any more.  Since almost everyone has access in one fashion or another to spellcheck, the DJ argued, there’s no point in teaching people to spell any longer.  She went on to explain that grammar wasn’t necessary either.  As long as we can make ourselves understood, she said, who cared if the rules were being followed?

I couldn’t disagree more, especially when it comes to the written word.  In conversation, we have the option of repeating ourselves until the other party eventually gets what we’re trying to say, but on the page, there’s only one shot at delivering the message.  When people use unspecific, imprecise or just plain incorrect words, their meaning becomes unclear.  When they then construct sentences improperly using misspellings and poor word choices, I’m left staring, trying to figure out what on earth they’re babbling about. 

Many years ago, during a writing group meeting, one of the writers was reading aloud from her murder mystery.  She was describing the killer’s home, and said something about the Nubian lying across the back of the sofa.  I collapsed into giggles (as did several of us) and when we finally calmed down, we explained to her that while “Nubian” might be a synonym for “Afghan”, it definitely was not a synonym for “afghan”.  One is a person, and one is a blanket.  She’d believed her word processor’s spellcheck program when it made the suggestion, and didn’t think past the sound of the word.  The capitalization made all the difference.  And that’s not just word choice, but spelling.  Spelling is important, and if you want to impress an editor, trusting spellcheck is foolhardy.

It’s hard to know what you’re trying to communicate when you use words that don’t mean what you want them to mean.  Just because they look similar doesn’t mean they are alike, and you end up confusing the reader.  Ignoring proper spelling and grammatical construction is just as confusing.  The last thing you want to do is chase away a reader by ignoring the basic rules of the language we share, especially if that reader is an editor you’re hoping will buy your book.  He’s going to take one look, realize he has no idea what you’re talking about, and drop you a no-thank-you email faster than you can blink.

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14 comments to Say What You Mean

  • Yes! I spend quite a bit of my time telling business students this. If your writing is sloppy and filled with mistakes, it tells the readers you didn’t care enough about them or the subject to take time to edit and proofread. When one of them argues that grammar and spelling aren’t that important anymore, I agree that it’s not important . . to everyone. The catch is that unless they know the reader really well and are absolutely sure that mechanics don’t matter, they run the risk of sending their poor writing to someone who does care and paying the price for that mistake. The students generally agree it’s not worth the risk.

  • Makes me wanna go watch Idiocracy again. It really is a cautionary tale. 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    My husband said something the other day about a new dictionary definition being added for the word ‘literally’ that meant emphasis but not *really* ‘literally’, since people have been abusing the word for so long. I shuddered. I still shudder.

  • Ken

    Spelling, word choice, and grammar are essential. I think that they are so essential that people sometimes forget how important they are. It’s like oxygen: not something you think about every day, but if it wasn’t there…you’d miss it.

    Love the Nubian story Misty. Nubians are also a breed of goats (You’ll recognize them by their long, floppy ears). So I’m picturing this goat laying on the back of the sofa…perhaps nibbling on the afghan :)

  • Misty, I remember that! Oy.
    On the other hand (yes I am going to look at language from another viewpoint) I have recently begun to question why a language evolves, and if it’s all bad. I know. Gasp, right? *Me?* not minding rules of language and grammar changing? But here is my ongoing reasoning.

    A few years back, some bigwig in France said that his country would no longer allow English/American words to creep into their language. I think his complaint was hamburger and BigMac. Oh. And KFC. He was adamant that his country’s language should remain pure. Really? Where does he think the words come from in the first place? Heaven? Divine decree? All words and all meanings are made up. Words change as people need them to. As culture changes.

    Is it possible that dude in France needs to lighten up and enjoy the ride? Is it possible that, while rules and meanings help us communicate and understand, we as writers need to accept changes in culture and use them to make our work better? Is it possible to make use of the changes for more realism?

    Thoughts?

  • I’m a purist when it comes to grammar and spelling. I agree that language has to evolve and adapt to new trends. But I also believe that language is what links generations, and if we bow too much to the trends of the moment, we abandon our links to the writers who came before us and potentially render our writings incomprehensible to those who come after. There has to be some level of fidelity to language traditions; it doesn’t have to be complete or even overly rigid. But there should be some.

  • What David said. :)

    Really, I don’t have a problem with language evolving to fit the needs of the culture it serves, but I become impatient with people who insist that there’s no difference between “you” and “U”, or that “there”, “their” and “they’re” are interchangeable. If we have no rules for language to follow, we lose our ability to communicate.

    Hey Ken, all I could see was a handsome African warrior draped over the back of the sofa. Hence the giggles.

  • One can write and barely communicate, or one can write well, with economy, style, and a minimum of ambiguity. There are those who argue the two are the same, and there is little point in trying to convince them otherwise.

    There is no more efficient way to undermine what one is saying than to appear ignorant in the fundamental use of language. If I see grammatical or spelling errors in an instruction manual, I have to wonder where else the manufacturer cut corners.

  • kwlee

    I’ve always been of the opinion that, like people, it takes all kinds of words for all kinds of situations. As long as language keeps up with that, then I’m fine with it evolving to match.

    What I can’t bear is laziness, which my kids can tell you is one of my hot-buttons. Use ‘U’ in a text. Fine. It’s quicker and easier, I get it. When something important needs to be said, however, I hope they take the time to make sure the right words are used in the right way. There’s a time and place for speed, and a time and place for clarity.

  • quillet

    Spell check? As a substitute for knowing your own language? AH HA HA HA HA! Read this aloud: “Yew no, eye awl waist ewes spill cheque butt aye half ah feeding their art miss steaks inn hear.” There’s not a single misspelled word in that sentence, nothing for spell check to find — and yet there’s not a single correct word in it, either. *grumbles* Makes me want to quote Sherlock at that bloody stupid DJ: “Don’t talk out loud, you lower the IQ of the whole street.”

    Knowing your own language is not a waste of time. (Or “waist of time,” as I saw it written once, which is…what? The middle of an hourglass figure?) After all, look at the difference a single comma can make in the title of that excellent book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. With the comma, we’re talking about someone with a gun. Without it, we’re talking about a panda. So yeah, you can’t “make yourself understood” if you ignore all the rules.

    Faith is right that language changes over time, and rigidly fighting that process is pretty pointless. But that DJ was espousing wilful ignorance, which is a different thing in my book. In fact, it’s the opposite! You can’t embrace the changes in your language if you don’t know the difference between a change and an error.

  • For those of us who deal in the written word, not just the spoken word, I’ll offer the following hilarious (all real!) examples of what can happen if we don’t pay close attention to what words mean and how homonyms work (or how spellcheck can screw you over.)

    The student who wrote delightedly about standing in church, filled with the love of God, “sharing these hymens with the whole community.”

    The countless students who don’t know the difference between loose and lose, including the one who wrote about “loosing” her virginity.

    The many other students who hear contractions of “have” as “of” and so write “I would of” instead of “I would have…”

    The other student who argued that “since the dawn of time, it has been the goal of men to woe women.”

    And finally, me (because I make these mistakes too) who one night forgot how to spell “of”. I tried ov, ove, and off before I finally figured it out.

  • Razziecat

    Oh Misty, this is one of my biggest pet peeves! Yes, language evolves, but like all evolution, it takes time, and happens as necessity demands; it’s not a result of someone being too lazy to learn to spell, punctuate or use proper grammar. Many people have said that before you can break the rules, you need to learn what the rules are and how to use them. There’s a huge difference between creativity and sloppiness.

    I look at bad spelling as similar to, but worse than, writing too much in dialect; it’s distracting, difficult to understand, and often not worth the effort.

  • Vyton

    Great post. Throwing out the established rules is not evolution. It’s going the other direction.

  • Megan B.

    I agree with you 100%. And being understood isn’t even enough, in my opinion. If the reader has to do extra work to reach that understanding, they are going to find it exhausting to read your work. Spelling and grammar rules ensure that words are understood at a glance, allowing the reader to focus on the message.

    As for blindly trusting the thesaurus, I have seen people make that mistake, and it really does make their work less appealing. If you don’t know the exact meaning of the synonym, either don’t use it or go look it up first. :)