Folks constantly say that grammar doesn’t matter. This rings pretty hollow, of course, when someone in World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online is asking for help with a quest, and their grammar is so poor that I realize they could be asking any of three valid questions regarding that quest, and I can’t for the life of me tell which one. Apparently neither can other folks, since often they’ll get conflicting answers that answer different versions of the question. Spelling is a similar matter; sometimes you can tell what someone means, but sometimes you can’t. Homonyms (words that sound alike but are spelled differently, like there and their) make spelling particularly important. Capitalization might seem like the last bastion of “it doesn’t matter,” and yet it can make a huge difference as well. I saw someone post the following example on a WoW chat channel once, so I can’t properly attribute it; yes, it’s crude, but that makes it memorable:
Capitalization is the difference between “I helped my Uncle Jack off a horse” and “I helped my uncle jack off a horse.”
Punctuation has a similar argument going for it that capitalization does, and in fact punctuation could also greatly clear up that last sentence: “I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse.”
I don’t tend to berate folks for their spelling or grammar the way some people do; I don’t see the point. It doesn’t accomplish anything except to make people angry, and it would be pretty hypocritical since I know my grammar isn’t perfect either. I only have a few circumstances under which I’ll say something:
- Someone makes a really obvious mistake of their own while they’re pompously correcting someone else’s grammar or spelling. I mean, come on. Don’t go around correcting everyone else when you can’t even do it right yourself; that’s truly obnoxious. (I’m mostly likely to do this if someone’s obviously correcting someone else in order to be a jerk.)
- Someone makes a mistake that creates an unintentionally funny statement. What can I say; I love word-play and unintentional humor. Even when I see that I don’t correct their grammar or spelling, however; I just can’t help pointing out the humor in what they’re saying.
- I hit the boiling point, usually due to an unusually large number of people making really stupid mistakes and being very snotty about it.
Right now I’m mostly posting this because I must pass on my current favorite example of why such things matter:
(“Don’t kill your wife with work! Let electricity do it!”)
If you can’t see the humor in this sign then trust me, you really really need to improve your grammar.
Speaking of which, our latest review is of Lara M. Robbins’s Grammar & Style at Your Fingertips. Oddly enough, that actually is a coincidence.
Now, like I said, I know my grammar isn’t perfect, and I decided to take a little online meme quiz in that area:
Your English Skills:
It uses a pretty small cross-section of examples to test you, of course, so it’s of dubious accuracy. The only part that bugs me is that I used to be MUCH better at spelling. I’m also much better at spelling a word when you ask me to spell it cold rather than showing me two different possible spellings; something about the latter situation makes it much harder for me to judge. I start second-guessing myself.
That test is interesting to take, but like you, I have an easier time just spelling out a word, than recognizing which of two very similar ones is correct. Also, and this is a big one, the typeface/font of your browser (or of the page in question) can have a huge impact — depending on the kerning, certain letters can be harder or easier to see. Also, at least one of the examples of grammar they showed, seemed more like a judgment or style call than an absolute “right/wrong” case, at least to me.
About your main point: I can understand in an MMORPG setting, where one is typing quickly and where the chat window editing features are often woefully minimalistic, that typing in perfect English is going to be rather difficult. However, there is a difference between a few typos (which everyone makes) and writing so badly that even an educated person with a good grasp of English cannot understand you. I will never forget my first introduction to this… on a MUSH, someone asked an admin over a chat channel, quote, “Commander hv u gt a minete?”
I sat there scratching my head thinking, “What the heck is a ‘minete?'” (in my head I pronounced the word “mine-eat”). The admin said, “Sure be right there,” and then went off to help the other person. After a little more thinking I realized the question was, “Commander, have you got a minute?”… even though it looks nothing like that.
I find that I get less annoyed at this sort of thing if it is accidental typos, or just ignorance, then when it is done on purpose… such as the “leet speak” crowd who purposely substitute numbers for letters and speak in a sort of code to show how “cool” they are. For example, when they flame people on a forum saying, “u r a n00b”… That’s on purpose, and I always find it annoying.
Anyways, good post…
Aye, I agree totally that a couple of typos aren’t a big deal. For instance, I ignore ‘teh’ for ‘the’ and ‘adn’ for ‘and’ because I find when you type quickly it’s easy to get those out of order. And like you said, chat has its own limitations! What mostly gets to me is the folks who think it doesn’t matter to even try and are aggressive about that belief. You can write imperfectly and still be understood, but you need to at least try to be understood, and since the internet is such a text-based medium, grammar and spelling will always be a part of that.
I saw a great anti-‘txt spk’ banner on a blog once exhorting folks to “SAVE THE VOWELS!”
When I see “leet speek” I tend to assume the typer is a young teenager—not just in age but also maturity—and I’m rarely wrong about that. I only once met someone who tended toward “txt tlk” online who was fairly mature, and he wasn’t extreme about it and never said things like ‘n00b;’ he just had particular difficulty with spelling despite being a bright kid in other areas.
Leet speak is usually an affectation. That is, people do it because they think it’s “hip” or “cool” or whatever you want to call it… They think it makes them part of the “in crowd” to be able to type like that.
Over time I have learned to understand it (reluctantly), and sometimes I will joke around in chat using it. But it does have one very useful attribute: because it mixes caps and lower case oddly (like, “suXXorz”) and uses numbers instead of certain letters (like, “i pwn3d j00!”), I can make up a simple word that is easy to remember, “leet-ify” it, and it becomes a valid password on most security systems. 😉
Perfect on grammar, good on punctuation; not so hot on spelling or vocab.
An old English professor of mine had a bumpersticker that read “Support your local rhetorician!” Once, a cop thought it was derogatory somehow and pulled him over.
I don’t mind reasonable shorthand, like “brb”, but I’m annoyed when a person doesn’t adjust his or her language for the audience. If someone obviously isn’t familiar with your shorthand and jargon, then stop using them.
I try to pay attention to my grammer and punctuation while writing, but I ignore conventions when I disagree with them. It seems that our Ivy League overlords sometimes choose aesthetics over good sense. Regardless of what grammarians say, periods and commas should go outside quotation marks when the quoted text contains no such punctuation, because that’s what makes sense.
Also, I think it’s curious that “I” is always capitalized while other pronouns are not. Of course, that’s one rule I only break when writing lyrics or poetry, because people would gripe otherwise.
One other thing that bugs me sometimes is our language’s lack of a personal pronoun that can refer to either sex or both. When phrases like “he or she” and “his or her” are placed too often in one sentence, or even in one paragraph, the language can become muddled or extraneous. I try to include both sexes in my site’s articles. But, for simplicity and clarity, I usually just throw in the occasional “he or she” in the midst of a lot of male pronouns.
Chessack: Yeah, leet speak is something I do occasionally joke with. I never would have thought of the password idea though—clever!
Aaron: Eeek! It’s kind of disturbing both that the officer didn’t understand what the word meant and that he would pull the guy over for a bumper sticker.
Yeah, things like “brb” don’t bother me either, just because they’re handy. One thing I never understood was shortening “anyone” to “ne1”—you aren’t even shortening it all that much at that point!
One of the things I liked about the “Grammar & Style at Your Fingertips” book is that it pointed out where people often shortcut a rule or another in the name of readability or effective writing, and where this is generally acceptable vs. where it isn’t.
I too wish there was a neutral personal pronoun. I tend to handle this by using “he” in some pieces and “she” in others, more or less at random. Maybe that isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing.