Is There Really Room for Error in Writing?
Writing is a battle. On one side: the force of your important message. On the opposing side: the forces of ignorance and misunderstanding. Your weapons: your words. Your support: the entire tradition of the English language.
Calls for more precise writing are often met with complaints of “Aw, do I have to?” That was the response of some readers to our article on Gross Writing Errors Found on the Web. Yes, often your readers will understand you even if you make mistakes in spelling and grammar. But not always.
If your audience doesn’t read English well, one unfortunately-placed mistake could send them into bewilderment. Native English speakers are familiar with native English mistakes and frequently can figure out what the writer really meant. But others may not have the same experience with the language. Looking up “hole” in a dictionary won’t help you understand that the writer meant “whole” – it’s likely to confuse you badly.
As a writer, you have a limited arsenal. A sentence can only hold so many words before your reader loses track of what you’re saying. The English language only has so many synonyms that your reader understands, which limits the vocabulary you can use. So a writer has to squeeze all his or her meaning into a small space. There is little room for error.
Language changes, but it changes slowly. English speakers have been trying to agree on spelling and grammar for almost a millennium since the Norman Conquest, and a millennium and half since the first Anglo-Saxons. MySpace is not going to change the language overnight. What’s the most reliable way to say something important, if you want the most people to understand it: the way it’s been written for five centuries, or the way it’s been written for five years?
Errors in language have cost people their lives and freedom. The Bible, in Judges 12:5-6, tells how fleeing enemy soldiers were trapped and killed because they couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound used by the tribe they pretended to belong to. Some US draft evaders during the Vietnam War tried to pass themselves off as Canadian, but when asked to repeat the alphabet, they were detected when they pronounced the last letter as “zee” (US) rather than “zed” (Canada). During the Salem witch trials of 1692, Rebecca Nurse would have been set free except for her words, “She is one of us,” spoken about another woman. She meant that the woman was a fellow defendant, but the judge thought she meant that the woman was a fellow witch. Rebecca Nurse was hanged because the antecedent of a pronoun was misunderstood. She died because of a mistake in grammar.