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.