The Right and Wrong of Writing

By Mark Nichol

Who or what determines what is correct form in writing, and what is incorrect? Many nations have an official body that regulates the national language to protect it from extinction or at least from degradation. (France’s Academie Francaise, in particular, seems to exist primarily to prevent pollution of the French language by importation of English words — let me know how that works out, mes amis). This paternal protection, however, does not extend to grammar and punctuation and the like.

The United States is not among those countries with prose police, but our library and bookstore shelves groan with dictionaries and grammar, usage, and style manuals as well as handbooks that guide us in our use of punctuation — and the Internet abounds with more of the same. These resources are not necessarily engrossing reading (unless you’re a word nerd), but they are exemplary models in practicing what they preach, and they are likely to be much more reader-friendly than the dread-inducing language arts textbooks of our schooldays.

Why, then, has the quality of writing declined so dramatically that we might benefit from an English Academy — one devoted not to language purity (which words we use, and which ones we don’t) but to monitoring the written form of that language?

The democratization of publishing is primarily responsible, I think. Because, thanks to the dramatic increase in options for businesses and organizations to disseminate information by way of text online and in print, and because of the ease of self-publishing the same media affords anyone with access to them, more and more people who don’t pay attention to such details are writing and being read, which of course exposes so many more people to the errors.

Thus, erroneous usage — not just in hyphenation, punctuation, spelling, and other mechanical mistakes but also in infelicities of grammar, syntax, usage, and other more substantial elements of writing — is multiplied virally because of the shift in the signal-to-noise ration: Fewer people are reading rigorously written and edited prose, and more people are reading writing crafted with less care. This, I believe, is the culprit in the decline of quality in published writing I’ve observed over the years both as an editor and as someone who takes a busman’s holiday every time I read for information or pleasure.

The reason for the decrease in consumption of meticulously produced content is twofold. Fewer people actively seek good writing. But equally culpable are the publishing industries, the erstwhile guardians of good writing, which compromise the quality of periodicals and other publications because they discourage labor-intensive practices necessary for producing high-quality writing, practices inimical to lean-business strategies that result in high profits.

This issue brings up a question I’m surprised people don’t ask more often: In the realm of writing, if so many people do something seen as wrong or nonstandard, doesn’t that make it right? After all, that’s how new laws are written and how societal mores changes. And that’s how language changes. So, if the majority of writers write, “You and me” at the head of a sentence instead of “you and I” (or reverse their preferences when the phrase is the object of a sentence), why is the former usage considered incorrect and the latter one deemed the acceptable way? The majority seems to beg to differ.

Because language doesn’t turn on a dime. For sanity to prevail, there must be a period of time between shifts in rules of usage and punctuation and other elements of writing in which we respond to “Everybody else does it” the way a parent would react to that type of justification uttered by a willful teenager: “Well, if everybody else went and jumped off a cliff, would you?” By the same token, we need to scold writers by saying, “Well, if everybody uses comma splices, does that mean you should, too?”

At the risk of seeming like a strict parent, that’s why I’m going to defend my rigor by saying that popular usage is not a standard. It is not a guidebook. And I will follow my own counsel: I will adhere to the rules (unless I have an indefensible reason to break one now and then), and I will exhort others to do the same.

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30 Responses to “The Right and Wrong of Writing”

  • Biri

    mes amis

  • MaryHodges

    (unless I have an indefensible reason to break one now and then)

    My dictionay defines “indefensible” as “hard to defend”,”defenceless”. Surely you mean the exact opposite.

  • Phil South

    I feel your pain. As someone who painstakingly corrects, punctuates and proofs his text messages before he sends them, I am the butt of my teenage children’s jokes.

    The fault for eroding the proper use of English lies with teaching and news. Few are taught English grammar and punctuation in schools these days and even if they are kids treat it like calculus or algebra, with an attitude of “wen R I EVR going 2 use dat?”

    Seriously, in a world where my 19 year old daughter uses “true dat” instead of “that’s true” in polite conversation, is anything sacred?

    The drop in standards comes I think from the need for speed. The urgency with which news outlets must come up with 24/7 wall to wall news in print and audio-visually is the main culprit. Quantity over quality, and this is something which pervades society now.

    Plus kids text and instant message each other constantly. They are typing now with more ferocity and frequency than in the whole history of mankind. Shorthand rules. Kids can type much faster than their parents, but a lot of quality is getting lost in the rush.

    The devil is in the speed of communication. The loss of quality writing is more to do with people rushing forwards on a road to nowhere rather than sitting quietly and reading some books. Everything in the media is urging us forwards, to be afraid, to be acquiring things, to be in motion like a shark afraid of drowning.

    I am constantly horrified by the illiterate outpourings of young people I teach, work colleagues and people I meet. A middle aged woman recently got confused by something I was saying. “Over jealous?” she asked, puzzled. How can you get so grown up and not know what “zealous” means? It defies belief, but unfortunately we are speeding to our illiterate doom unless we train our kids to read and write.

    For my part I’ve always read to my kids, made sure they saw me reading for pleasure, and it’s paid off. They are the least illiterate and most bookish people I know. Always have a book on the go and a couple lined up. They still use verbal slang which make my teeth itch, but at least they read and write well. It’s not much but it’s a start.

    And by the way nothing is more nerve-wracking than answering a post about good use of English. I feel like I’m doing an exam.

    Phil South

  • Phil South

    You should have titled it WRITE AND RONG

    haha

    sorry

  • Rachel Cooper

    To Biri and MaryHodges, Muphry’s Law is at work.

    Muphry’s Law even struck Mary (it’s “dictionary”…).

    Today’s popular usage may be neither a standard nor a guidebook today, but at least some of it will find its way into both tomorrow. Meanwhile, those of us who care about language will try to keep our own usage – and our clients’ – toned and fit. Thanks, Mark. Another excellent post.

  • DawnJAnderson

    A related question that plagues me: Why do we persist in using a comma preceding the word “too”? Have you written an article on that subject already? My mind simply can’t wrap itself around the need for a comma when the word is being used as a synonym for “also,” with which we would not use a comma. (Did you notice the irony? The advertisement accompanying this article is for a self-publisher.)

  • Nelida K.

    To Rachel, Biri and MaryHodges.

    Rachel, shoudn’t it be ‘Murphy’s’ law? I think it even struck you…:) [am consciously refraining from using LOL).

    Biri: you beat me to the punch.

    Mary: Don’t worry, a case of sticky fingers happens in the best of families…:)

    On well-written English: I have just finished reading “The Passage” by Justin Cronin. Superb writing, superb penmanship, totally recommendable. However, I spotted one spelling mistake (“wretch” as in being sick, instead of “retch”). I pointed it out to the publishing house but never got a reply. And then, in another chapter, again the same (“wretching” i/o “retching”). Careless editing, and a confirmation as to why one should never rely entirely on the spellchecker, which can okay a perfectly legitimate word but totally wrong in context. Something that I, being by profession a translator, always keep in mind.

  • Jim Shimp

    Amen! Writing used to be a craft. Read Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others. I can’t help but think that all of the restrictions on today’s communication is a good part of the reason. Case in point; Twitter with its 140 character limit. I cringe at the steps I have to take to write a simple message without having to split it into two or more “Tweets.”

  • thebluebird11

    Just flitting in for a second…sorry…will be back later LOL but in the meantime, it is “mes amis” (my friends, plural/collective) as opposed to “mon ami” (my friend, masculine singular). For the feminine, it would be mon amie (singular), or mes amies (plural, all feminine). Don’t worry, I’m not from the Academie and I won’t tell!

  • ApK

    Rather than an English Academy, I think we need a national chain of well-appointed pubs where those of us who care can get together after work and commiserate.

    I’m here at work at this moment listening to an otherwise well-spoken co-worker repeatedly say to a client “Me and Andy will work on this…” and it’s like an ice-pick in my ear.

    ApK

  • Ridhi Chugh

    Your regular posts are extremely helpful to people like me. I really want to thank you for your selfless dedication to the English language. Not that I read them on a regular basis but I am trying to make it a habit.

    I am a Indian and English is my second language. It is the second official language along with Hindi in India. Most of the Indian youth know how to speak English even if they are unable to write it. In the past few years India has seen an exponetial increase in books. And trust me most of them are crap. If you consider the Internatioal quality low you would toss most of what is kept here on shelves into bin without any regret.

    And the problem does not end here. Even after surveying and exprementing with all kinds of writing when you finally discover some good books, you are dissapointed that those are not even available in the bookstores near you.

    On top of it English novels are overpriced in India. Something that I have never understood. As a matter of fact most books in the market and some (read many) on the bestseller lists also lack good content. Rather there is no content all. Books written for young adults are actually biopics disguised as light ‘pathetic’ romances. Actually romance is a word that I would use. Most of them are written by ‘male writers’ with their stupid male egos who would die before they call their books nothing but sugary sweet romances. They talk of nothing but girls, and that too in a reporting style without any story. The language of course is equally bad as the writing and the story. It is just so annoying and disappointing.

  • Bill Polm

    I agree, Not just poor grammar but poor writing generally abounds today. I frequently like to answer questions in Yahoo!Answers, but all too often the questions are so ineptly written that I simply cannot figure out what the questioner is asking.

    And, too, I write reviews for Amazon, and I have reviewed too many novels that I simply couldn’t believe were actually published. (Note: I used the coordinating conjunction head the previous sentence intentionally–see below.)

    But I think it’s important to differentiate between what is grammatical errors according to time tested and sensible grammatical rules, rules adhered to by professional writers, and those so called rules that are based on logic alone and not effective writing style.

    Examples? Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Done split an infinitive. To those I say nonsense. And down with grammar Nazis! (Sentence fragment intentional and effective, at least I think so; fine writers and pros punctuate fragments as sentences constantly).

    And while I am on this hobby-horse, let me add that an occasional typo is not a cardinal sin.

    But we humans are not perfectly logical, to say the least. I, for one, do not want my writing to be test-tube perfect or mathematically correct, or even at all times scientifically provable.

    Now back to my starting point: poor writing, including college professor-authors that should have hired editors to make their words more readable.

    Personally I think too many wanna-be writers aspire to the status of “I’m a writer!” and are not devotees of the craft. We who love to write, even though it is a demanding craft/art and often frustrating, work at it. It takes time to learn to write really well. Even saying what you mean is not slam-dunk easy.

    (For any missed typos above, I humbly apologize!)

  • Laura Goyer

    I doubt that I will get through this comment without making at least a half dozen grievous errors, but here goes…

    The explosive growth that has taken place in the blogosphere over the last ten years is also a key contributor to the decline in writing quality. Many bloggers (myself included) adopt a casual, conversational tone in an effort to establish a relaxed relationship with the reader. Most of us are self-editing, and many are relying entirely on the spell checker that came with the blogging platform they use (myself excluded). I’ve even come across a few “Writing Tips” posts where the author has suggested that bloggers should throw the rules of grammar and word usage out the window – that there are no ‘rules’ when it comes to blogging.

    I just downloaded your eBook so that I can start to clean up my act.

    Thanks for a great post (and please don’t skewer me for my errors).

  • dragonwielder

    Great article, Mark!

    My job involves a lot of document-reviewing, and I often find myself having to correct the mistakes of the writers who created the documents (most of whom no longer work here). I cannot, in good conscience, let these mistakes go if I want my company to produce professional, well-written documents for our partners.

    I studied English linguistics in college, and I find these language debates fascinating.

    @ApK – Put me down on your list of commiserators! My cousin does the same thing in his blog (“Me and Jon…”).
    @Phil – I love your title suggestion. 🙂

  • Michael

    I’m thankful for those who stand as guards on the walls around the messy task of communication (as you do). But I remind myself that soldiers develop their own lingo and tend to experience the world only through the language they themselves have developed, even as the messy work of communicating goes on all around them. Their world narrows. Perhaps it’s an insipid metaphor but linguistic soldiers are in danger of cutting tethers to reality and practicality. We must not forget that the goal of writing and speaking is to communicate. If we communicated, then the task is sufficiently done. Beyond this we may enjoy correctness of expression, beauty of style, but aren’t these really just toppings?

  • Michael

    Ah! Ye self-righteous. It is indeed Muphry’s law, written so to reflect the horrible event when an editor makes a mistake while being an editor. It’s a little editor’s humor, which is too often missing for those dotting the I’s and crossing every T.

  • Cicuta

    Englich is my second language but I grew up in a country and time when teaching “was good” and parents did care about their kids doing their home work. Teachers were excellent also and they always stressed on the correct usage of the language and the same goes for news papers; it was a pleassure reading good articles in all the magazines and news papers; however, now the usage of bad written and spoken languages is universal as it is happening in most languages and not only with English. Who is to balme? Mainly teachers I think as they do not stress in good quality teaching now days and the same goes for all other subjects and hence, the lack of quality students in this country. Also, the governmet is to blame as they have allowed peole to use other languages as though those languages were the mother language here in the USA and so they publish all kinds of literature in about 144 different languages; this in my opinion deteriorates the use of English and its purity. I have always been a perfectionist and believe in the purity of the languages; however, every time I read and article in English I feel like ….well, you get the message I think.

    Cicuta in Placerville, CA

  • Mark MacKay

    Your rigor will develop rigor mortis before the hoi polloi admit concern – or interest – in the quality of American writing. Choose smaller battles. I advocate for consistency within a system, which allows an occasional contribution from the colloquial, as long as it is applied consistently with project boundaries.

  • Cicuta

    Errata in my comment:
    however, every time I read an article in English I feel like…

  • aurinko

    Eh, prescriptivism. If my heart tells me that “you and me” just feels right, then that’s correct usage.

  • gabrielle T

    Since acquiring a computer my writing, thanks to the ‘green line’ lacks vigour, the fresh, free, spontaneous style in which I wrote years ago on a manual typewriter. Bloody hell i.e. ‘passive voice, consider revising’, or ‘fragment, consider revising’ etc, etc, and so laboriously I re-phrase, which at times succeeds, but otherwise falls flat on the page.

  • ApK

    aurinko, while “you and me” can certainly be correct (especially out of context like that), or effective when used in a non-standard way just because you feel something, doesn’t make it right, sorry. No.
    Effective communication requires that rules be prescribed and subscribed to. You can feel something is write adn still be wrong.

  • Allena

    “At the risk of seeming like a strict parent, that’s why I’m going to defend my rigor by saying that popular usage is not a standard. ”

    1) Not so. Popular usage is indeed standard IN SOME SETTINGS. Perhaps those aren’t settings where you want to write, but in those settings, certain styles would stick out like a sore thumb. A big consideration here is print versus web. Not that web is automatically “a step down” but I do think- style wise, and “errata” wise- that print is “a step up”- ie almost never the appropriate place to play against the rules.

    2) Not standard- yet. But any purveyor of the English language knows that those changes WILL come.

    3) Strict parent….also, curmudgeons who want to put the brakes on any and all change. I personally delight in the dynamic element of the English language. That was my favorite part of linguistics class- tracing those changes, and predicting the next 10 years of changes. That’s my personal attitude/approach to it.

  • Nicholas Rose

    Spellcheckers play their role too.

    I see you have written “ration” in place of “ratio”. Now, this is a mistake that I seem to make every single time I type the word “ratio”. While I have caught out my index finger on occasions, adding that unwanted “n” before I could stop it, I strongly suspect that most often it is the spellchecker that has added the last letter. And seeing the error made by someone else adds weight to my suspicion.

  • Precise Edit

    Teachers. I once gave a grammar and punctation quiz to a group of teachers. They were tasked to correct fairly common punctuation and grammar errors and to identify parts of speech. None passed the quiz. Discussion ensued.

    Teachers. Studies of teachers’ speech forms suggest that most of teachers’ speech is in the informal registers, not in the formal (i.e., academic) register. This may also contribute to poor test scores because textbooks and tests are generally written in the formal register. More on the various language registers: http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/writing-style-and-formality/

    Teachers. “This is science class. Not English. I’m not going to require the students to write correctly.”

    Teachers. “As long as the students feel like they accomplished something and expressed their ideas, it’s ok. Besides, no one really pays attention to grammar.”

    Teachers. Teachers teach what they know. They don’t teach what they don’t know. “Several studies show that over the past three decades, teachers with low academic skills have been entering the profession in much higher numbers than teachers with high academic skills.” (http://nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c1/c1s5.htm)

  • Bill

    Of course, if everyone else jumped off a cliff, I would be pretty lonely if I didn’t join them.

    Fortunately, bad grammar only makes me lonely if I’m a jerk about it. I like the idea of a pub where we can complain about it, though.

  • Bill

    gabrielle T

    Ignore your computer unless you think Bill Gates writes better than you do. Or plug in some great prose, from Milton, or Churchill, or Orwell, and see how Word treats it.

    My computer is telling me that your nick is misspelled. I assume the computer is wrong.

  • Mark Nichol

    Thanks — and pardon my French — to those of you who pointed out my erroneous use of mon amis in place of mes amis, since corrected in the article.

  • SJS

    Deviations from the “standard” that introduce ambiguity or obscure meaning _should_ be treated as errors to be corrected. Everything else should be

    We have forgotten the lesson that the burden of communication lies with the writer, not with the reader. Lazy writing habits and poor grammar are excused with “you know what I meant, so what’s the problem?”

    I take a perverse pleasure is interpreting poor writing in creative ways, as a way of driving home a lesson in responsibility.

    Precise Edit writes “Teachers. “This is science class. Not English. I’m not going to require the students to write correctly.””

    I know[1] of at least one situation where this was somewhat inverted — the English teachers required their students to write an essay on a science topic as a sort of “integrated learning” exercise, and then had the science teachers do the grading, since “We’re English teachers, not science teachers!”. The essays were so full of grammar errors so as to be nearly unreadable. When the graded essays were handed back with the grammar errors marked (and the grade correspondingly decreased), the English teachers objected: “It’s not the job of a science teacher to teach grammar!”

    [1] Personal observation of a science teacher dealing with this disaster.

  • Maeve

    Mark,
    Hear, hear!

    PreciseEdit,
    Two of your items struck a nerve with me:
    “This is science class. Not English. I’m not going to require the students to write correctly.”

    A science teacher once accused me of Nazi tactics for trying to get all subject teachers to adopt the same standards for written work.

    “As long as the students feel like they accomplished something and expressed their ideas, it’s ok. Besides, no one really pays attention to grammar.”

    I can’t count the times I’ve heard coaches and school administrators laugh off their nonstandard usage in staff meetings with the quip that they’d “leave correct English to the English teachers”.

    If the various policies that make racial slurs unacceptable were extended to include the ridicule of standard English, perhaps we could look for an improvement in the quality of English spoken by teachers, local news anchors, and actors portraying the roles of educated people.

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