The question in the headline for this post is the heading of an online survey I came across recently. I’ve reproduced the survey questions below and answered them based on my own opinions. Complete the survey yourself, and then compare your responses with mine.
1. Do you judge other people based on their writing?
Yes, and although I know that mitigating factors such as dyslexia and poor education exist, resulting in writing that inaccurately reflects a person’s intelligence or expertise, I naturally trust people more to provide valid, accurate information if they can express themselves well in writing.
2. What bothers you most about how others write?
The response choices are “grammar and punctuation (e.g., subject/verb agreement, misplaced commas),” “word use (e.g., they’re, their, there),” “long, difficult sentences,” “vague purpose,” and “poor logic.” This list, in my opinion, refers to errors in reverse order of significance. Faulty logic is the primary obstacle to effective expression, followed closely by vagueness of purpose. Rambling sentences are, by comparison, merely an annoyance, as are incorrect usage, grammar, and punctuation.
3. Have you seen an example of bad writing in the last week?
Yes — rarely a day goes by that I don’t see poor writing. And that’s not because I actively seek it out for the purposes of these posts; leisure or informative reading is often marred by clumsy prose.
4. Where did you see it?
The choices are “email,” “website,” “newspaper/magazine,” and “other.” My response is, all of the preceding. Isolated errors in print and online publications are endemic and almost impossible to avoid (I make mistakes myself, on occasion), but sustained poor writing is also ubiquitous.
5. Do you apply the same writing standards to social media?
Besides yes or no as response choices, the survey allows for making exceptions for Twitter and Facebook. I don’t use either product — or any social media besides email and this blog — but I do apply the same writing standards to any writing. I write informally when doing so is appropriate, but I never use text-speak or any other shortcuts, in social writing as well as in professional writing, though I forgive them in the off-the-clock writing of others.
6. Do you correct the writer when you see a mistake?
When I taught copyediting, students occasionally expressed their unease at sending emails to me because they were concerned that they would make an error. My gleeful responses to such correspondence were generally along the lines of, “Actually, you made four errors,” followed by details about each. I’ve done the same thing to a few unfortunate Daily Writing Tips readers as well, but I don’t send unsolicited corrections to anyone.
7. Why or why not?
During my editing career, I’ve been privy to many such messages. Often, someone will write something like “You made a mistake in such-and-such an article. Doesn’t anyone check your publication? You should hire me as a proofreader.”
I would never hire such a person, unless the message were charmingly tongue-in-cheek, because people who write those types of notes with a straight face, by doing so, demonstrate their lack of understanding about the editorial process: Despite the best efforts toward rigor and accuracy, even the best writers and editors occasionally make mistakes, and even the most careful production procedure can break down. That person’s presence is unlikely to fundamentally alter the vagaries of human endeavor.
8. What is your personal pet peeve?
I think the error that irks me more than any other is Gratuitous Capitalization of Words.
9. People often report “rules” that are not, in fact, rules. Also, rules do gradually change, and some people insist on rules that some authorities have relaxed. Which of the following rules do you still follow?
The choices are “Never begin a sentence with because,” “Never end a sentence with a preposition,” “Never split an infinitive,” and “The word they must always refer to a plural, never a single person or thing.”
The rule about because must distinguish between two usages: in an incomplete sentence (“Because I want to”), which is appropriate only in informal nonfiction and in dialogue, and in a complete sentence (“Because I want to go there, I’m saving money for a ticket”), which is unexceptionable. I discuss the first fallaciousness of the second and third proscriptions in this post, and I explain my qualified support for the singular they in this post.
10. Would you like to add a question to a future version of this survey? If so, what is it? Include the answer options.
My question is, “How do you determine what constitutes good writing?”
My response is that I study writing and editing resources and try to adhere to universal standards; I also choose between alternative precepts on the rare occasions when opinions differ, using my judgment — or, more rarely, I break the rules if doing so seems pertinent (or impertinent, as the case may be). I also observe and strive to emulate the habits of good writers.
Please include your own suggested question as a comment to this post.