Why Bother About Correctness?

By Maeve Maddox

I often receive emails from readers who profess to see no reason to worry about standard forms of spelling or usage. I say “profess” because if they are reading DWT posts, they must care a little.

Here’s a recent comment:

does it really matter b/c everyone has their own way of speaking, writing, and thinking and the languages and “right” ways of spelling our only set up and there… truely their is no wrong or right way to spell because everyhitng was just though up by someone eles… such as books are thoughup by theirs writers…

On the face of it, this comment suggests that the writer does not assign much meaning to language or to thought. And there’s no reason that he/she should. According to some thinkers, the only meaning life has is the meaning we choose to give it. So no, in the grand scheme of the universe, it doesn’t matter if you spell truly with an e. The stars are not going to fall because of it.

On the other hand, I consider language to be the most valuable and significant thing about being human. It’s a means of communication, certainly, but much more. It’s a tool of thought and a vehicle of culture. It’s a window to the past and a bridge to the future. It can be a source of lifelong satisfaction and pleasure and personal satisfaction.

I think correctness in language matters because having standard forms maintains access to past literature and makes one’s own writing comprehensible to a larger number of English speakers than strictly idiosyncratic spelling and usage do.

People seem to approach correctness in language rather as they do religion. At one extreme stand the prescriptivists who want everyone to follow their practice or be damned. At the other extreme are the descriptivists for whom anything goes.

How much importance to assign to correctness in writing and speaking is an individual choice. Those who don’t care whether others understand them or not are certainly justified in writing and speaking any way they please.

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26 Responses to “Why Bother About Correctness?”

  • Cine Cynic

    Bravo!

  • Hal

    Every time I read something like your commenter wrote I think of this quote. Excellent post.

    Useless Words

    So long as we speak the same language and never understand each other,
    So long as the spirals of our words snarl and interlock
    And clutch each other with irreckonable gutturals
    Well…

    Carl Sandburg

  • Labellelle

    Those who don’t care whether others understand them or not are certainly justified in writing and speaking any way they please.

    This is certainly true but on the flip side but those individuals should NOT get their knickers in a bunch when they are passed them over because of the lack of clarity in their writing and speaking and people look for those of us whose communication is easily understood by the masses.

  • K.Vee.Shanker.

    Everyone has to express one’s language as per standard terms as possible, more to be accurate and avoid any distortion or multiple meanings for the given word or sentence. Standards are inevitable for co-existance. Our responsibility starts as soon as another person is involved.

  • Lynn

    Excellent post! I will be forwarding the link to my college-age children. Thanks for capturing the thought and articulating it so clearly.

  • Rita

    That person’s “write however you want” defense is a great demonstration of why standardized spelling and usage IS important. I could barely follow the train of thought.
    Oh, the ironing, as the Simpsons would say.

  • bad tim

    as i recently told somebody on yahoo answers who complained about people ciritcizing grammar and spelling instead of anwering a question:

    with the resources now available to easily learn correct grammar and spelling, there’s no excuse not to make an attempt to write correctly. not doing so indicates a lazy mind. why should i take a person seriously who doesn’t even know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’? when i see writing like the quote you included, i will either satirize it or dissect it. it’s a small service i like to provide.

    the quote you included leaves the distinct impression that the writer is both ignorant and lazy. if that’s the image the writer wishes to present, so be it.

    tho, i do use a few abbreviated spellings and colloquialisms here and there.

  • Rochelle

    this was such a good post…and the person who wrote to you sort of proved your point with their warbled comment. like someone else just noted, it was difficult to even follow their train of thought; i had to muddle through such a number of mispellings etc. it was quite ironic, truly. πŸ˜‰
    i enjoy writing. i make mistakes at times – we all do – which is why i emply the use of spell/gammar check, and often, a fresh set of eyes to proof my writing (if it’s a story). those not interested in this shouldn’t be upset when they’re misunderstood (or labeled as ignorant).

  • Rochelle

    you see? haha.

    *employ
    *grammar

  • Doug D

    If I were an employer and came across atrocious writing I’d think twice about who I was hiring…much like posting provocative pictures on Facebook. It can come back and haunt you.

    Doug

  • William Penrose

    Writers who won’t learn their craft remove themselves from competition. They make it so much easier for those of us who do. Thank you, careless writers.

    Darwin Rules!

  • Karla

    This was definitely a forward!! I think texting (yes, a new verb!) has made all of us, even “professional writers,” lazy with our writing. It’s very easy to fall into a pattern of lazy writing and forget what the rules are.

  • Charlie

    It drives me crazy when people write with disregard for spelling and usage. I feel that I am wasting my time by having to translate what they are trying to say instead of understanding it from the beginning.
    I have gotten to the point that when I get text messages in that shorthand, that is popular, I don’t answer it. Even the Grans know to use correct spelling if they want an answer back.
    Less time spent translating means more time in real communication.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    Great post, Maeve!

    As you state, “I consider language to be the most valuable and significant thing about being human.” Yes! Language, in its written and spoken forms, is what distinguishes us humans from the animal kingdom.

    And while I concede that language is always evolving, the spelling and usage in your example is a huge step backwards. As some of the other commenters have noted here, a person who writes (and thinks) like that will not get far in the world.

    Not only is his spelling and usage an affront to the English language, but his “logic” in saying that “truely their is no wrong or right way to spell because everyhitng was just though up by someone eles” is simply absurd.

    English is a global language, so consistent, uniform usage is especially important.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    By the way, I can’t help but wonder if this person was pulling your leg.

    Call me naive, but I find it hard to believe that someone would actually believe that this nonsense is acceptable. πŸ™‚

  • Mari

    Why bother? Um, because I don’t speak ‘your’ language. I wouldn’t buy a book written in a foreign language that I don’t understand – and I won’t read an email that I can’t understand. It’s a measure of respect, much like wearing a nice suit of clothes to an interview. Show up to an interview wearing grungy, dirty, torn clothes and smelling of booze and I bet you don’t get the job. Show up to our conversation without the ability to express yourself concisely and I won’t bother to ‘talk’ to you again.
    Besides, how else would can I tell which emails are spam? πŸ™‚

  • Karla

    Cassie–I am a technical writer. I encounter people in my career and I have family members who believe spelling, grammar, etc. are not important and that my career choice is a silly waste of resources. I even know some college-educated people who write exactly that way. They “vomit” their thoughts all over the page and don’t bother to clean up the mess after they’re done.

  • Ellen

    An excellent post – there are many good reasons to write well, but intolerance of others is not one of them.

    I believe those who pester good writers about being too careful with language are really feeling insecure, so they say that language doesn’t matter. It does, and they know it.

    I try to use casual language in my personal correspondence so no one will feel too intimidated to reply, but I also know that others may use my writing as a model for theirs (particularly young people), so I’m careful with all but my closest friends and family.

  • Moody Boo

    I subscribed to your blog so that I can improve my own writing and every time I read your posts I’m in awe! Silly me but I love well-written articles. I recently posted a blog with a similar topic (http://moodyboo.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/assassination-of-the-english-language/). It’s not as good as yours.

    Anyway, keep up the good work and I’ll keep reading.

    God bless.

  • Brad K.

    Most communication probably occurs in dialects, where communities and individuals favor quirks of language to relate within their community or group.

    But proper usage might be considered the “dialect of authority”.

    If you want to read history, or news of the world, then you should understand and be fluent in proper usage – this argument is nearly the same as endorsing English as the sole language of government, of voting, and of campaigning for public office – no one can own their destiny, if they depend on another to interpret for them.

    Proper usage, in the appropriate context, signifies an expression of respect for the occasion and others participating.

    Consider the priest asking, “Do you, George, take this . . .” and getting an answer of “Yo, Buddy!” – I know people that would stop the show and walk away.

  • Danielle Ingram

    The point that you made about writing in a ‘correct’ way engaging a wide range of people from around the world is really important.

    So many people from across the globe speak English and so writing in a standard form is essential for worldwide communication, particularly with those for whom English isn’t a first language.

  • Luke S.

    Language at its base is a means of communication. It is no small task to set thoughts down in written words, and it takes no time at all for uncertainty to creep into even standard, correct writing, unfortunately. So slipshod sentences and loose or nonexistent grammar pretty much guarantee a lack of understanding on the part of the reader, and failure on the part of the writer.

  • Brad K.

    Luke S., yes and no.

    I got a letter once from my ex-wife’s mother. The family came from poor beginnings in backwoods, Georgia. The letter was a single paragraph, with no punctuation or capitalization (which is a lot easier to read that all caps!).

    While I found the lack of style to be telling about the educational background of the writer, I was able to successfully read the letter correctly.

    e.e. cummings made a name for himself with the no-caps gimmick – and poetry powerful enough to be worth reading.

    Sometimes we stray from proper usage deliberately, as when we use jargon pertinent to our topic and audience. To show respect to others, at times we will adhere to proper usage, and other times to variant dialect. Hola!, Si, and Un poco are not proper English. At times they are not just respectful, they are courteous.

    And that is the rule I follow. Be proper to assure clear communication to the widest audience. And be courteous even if it means deliberately compromising proper speech.

    Correcting someone can, rarely, be courteous – if they are interested in improving their attempts at proper speech or writing. Otherwise corrections are disrespectful. That is why pointing out improper word usage or selection, incorrect grammar, mis-spellings and such are more often rude – most people aren’t that interested in improving their usage of proper English, and most of the time we aren’t in a position of authority such that we are empowered to correct them. For most people, we *aren’t* their mommy.

    Marksmanship with pistol or rifle takes practice. Practice, and often guidance and training. You shoot regularly, or your ability to hit your target precisely gets “rusty”. Sometimes you welcome an observation, a suggestion – find an article or web page with a useful approach. And it works, and you improve. Other times you find nit picking and nagging an unneeded irritation. Which is just the case with proper English. You expect your instructor to comment, critique, and remind you of what is important. Everyone else needs to keep it zipped – unless you actively look for input.

    You work on marksmanship for the pleasure of shooting well, because you enjoy the company and competition of others that shoot well. And, because there may come a time that shooting well – speaking and writing correctly – may be important to your life.

    Like with marksmanship, some people need good mastery of proper English in their daily lives, but most people need it rarely. Whether preparing for regular, daily use, or for rare occasions, preparation beforehand can reduce or avoid a lot of hurt and regret.

  • Peter

    e.e. cummings made a name for himself with the no-caps gimmick

    Note: http://www.gvsu.edu/english/cummings/caps.htm

  • Brad K.

    Peter,

    Thanks for the E.E.Cummings information.

    I do note that between 1969, when the issue had been put to rest and the decapitalization had been debunked, and 1980, that the decapitalized usage had returned in full force. And where various publishers introduced the decapitalized name as an easily recognized marketing strategy and reminder of who the poet was, your author’s insistence that there is a correct form seems to overlook the truth. And that is that use of e.e.cummings to identify the poet and his works – works. In published works the jarring decapitalized name reminds the reader that E.E.Cummings included nonstandard usage of capitalization and punctuation in expressing himself.

    Despite the telling evidence that E.E.Cummings is how the author, at one point in his life, felt his name should be published, the “stage name” of e.e.cummings is still good marketing strategy, and generally meant with respect to the author and his works.

    Just think. I could have introduced an abbreviation into my comment for E.E.Cummings (EEC). Or maybe e.e.cummings (eec). lol!

    In the revisited article I was interested to note a February 1951 reference from Jerome Grossman to E.E.Cummings:

    “are you E.E.Cummings, ee cummings, or what?(so far as the title page is concerned)wd u like title page all in lowercase?”

    That is, “wd u like” – a precursor to text messaging speak! Older than I am!

  • Cecily

    @Cassie: Re “English is a global language, so consistent, uniform usage is especially important.”

    @Danielle: Re “So many people from across the globe speak English and so writing in a standard form is essential”

    I don’t disagree, but I think you’re oversimplifying.

    Standard American English is not the same as Standard British English and there are other “standard” Englishes as well.

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