Occupy a Dictionary

I love to read. There are few pleasures that can surpass that of sitting quietly in a comfortable chair, and imbibing one good sentence after another from a good book. Or a good magazine like the New Yorker, the Atlantic or the Economist. Reading is one of the purest forms of thinking, and I believe that thinking is fun.

Life is short, and we all deserve more fun.

When one has devoured a fair number of books — there are still so many left! — one starts to read more carefully. The more one reads, the more clearly one sees the differences between good writing and the rest. Something that is well written is a pleasure to be around, like a good conversationalist. Really good writing is so much more than just proper grammar and correct spelling. You know what I’m talking about: someone you enjoy hearing speak probably has a nice voice and a sense of humor, tells compelling stories, and uses interesting and imaginative language; you want them to keep talking. On the other hand, someone who speaks only of himself or herself, has a monotonic voice, and uses bad grammar and dull language will not be able to hold an audience for very long.

So it is with writing: combine the on-paper attributes of a good speaker (has a sense of humor, tells a compelling story, and uses interesting language) with correct spelling and proper grammar and punctuation, and it’s hard to put down. But sprinkle the piece you are reading with poor spelling and wretched grammar — like wrong notes in a symphony or ill-matched parts of a piece of furniture — and the quality and enjoyment plummets. Flaws like bad spelling and grammar can damage the story and break the magic spell. Low quality writing grates on the careful reader, which means that he or she might not wish to claw their way to the end.

One of my teachers used to say that the aim of a writer was to engage the reader so that he or she wants to continue turning the pages.

When confronted with flawed writing, a tiny growling sound begins to form in the base of my throat, and the need to point out the error to the author is nearly overwhelming. Is it out of a need for punishment or vengeance? Is it to feel superior? I don’t think so; I see it as more of a desire to help the author to improve.

Our country is populated by adults who ostensibly went to high school, and maybe even college, yet a quick review of the writing skills of some of them often suggests otherwise. These adults often post things in Facebook, where they find new and inventive ways to mangle the English language. (Here I must remind my readers that my wife is dyslexic, and that I am keenly aware of and sensitive to their impairments; my comments are directed at those who do not suffer from that sort of reading disorder and therefore may not use that excuse when defending their writing.) The profusion of errors seems to prove that either the writer missed quite a lot of English classes, or else their teachers were incompetent or indifferent to their students’ mastery of elementary skills, or some combination of all of those. In addition, I believe that many people do not read much; one who does not read is not likely to become a very good writer.

Do these Facebook perpetrators want their audiences to enjoy what they have written? Or are they narcissistic and clueless like many of the “Occupiers”? Don’t writers want to be liked and respected? Or do they not mind being mistaken for a small child or perhaps a Chinese writer of English-language instruction manuals?

Like many other devoted readers, I have a small handful of pet peeves about spelling. Is it really so hard to tell which version of “your” or “you’re” is correct? What about there/their/they’re? Maddeningly, it seems as if people flip coins when it comes to choosing between enormously complicated words like to/two/too or “its” versus “it’s”. (And by the way, [its’] is not a word.) There is this wonderful invention called the “dictionary” and there might even be one on your shelf. It is a tool that can help you if you are not sure.  I often use it, because nobody can remember how to spell every word, and to me it’s worth the time to look up words and get them right.

Over the course of twenty years I have tried to inculcate in my students a respect for language and for getting things right. Let’s assume for a moment that one of them graduated and got hired. If that student were to write memos filled with errors, with all sorts of sloppy grammar and misspellings, their boss would begin to question their credibility, and to doubt their ability to perform their job properly. Employees are representatives of their companies, and their work, and their writing, reflects upon the company. From a business customer’s point of view, if a contact person at a vendor’s company could not do something as simple as spelling a short word correctly — perhaps the name of a product — could they be counted on to correctly fill a customer’s order? To send the right number of the right items? Little things matter, and as a very wise friend from Texas likes to say, “The devil’s in the details.”

Write poorly, misspell things, and people will think less of you. (Isn’t it similar to not being able to do the simplest math? If someone cannot do a very simple calculation, like make correct change from a cash register, don’t you think somewhat less of them?) If someone points out a mistake you made, like a misspelled word or a grammatical error, don’t assume that the person is trying to punish you or make fun of you; maybe that person is trying to help you out so that you’ll get it right next time, and maybe avoid worse treatment by others.

Next time we will test a new 3-D graphics interface, and evaluate how well you throw virtual tomatoes at me.

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