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.