How important are grammar and spelling? Really?

Now that the mass media with its “newspeak” vocabulary has been part of our lives for several generations we really can’t afford to be pompous about spelling and grammar any more.

Even the stuffiest of academics has had to admit that stiffly formal writing is not clever; it’s boring. They may look down their noses at the language of popular websites, social media, blogs and so-on, but that’s the language nearly everyone speaks today.

article about spelling and grammarI won’t waste your time with my theories on why that has happened, but the bottom line is that English as a language has become simpler and less complex than it was 100 years ago.

And quite right, too. I’ve never understood why some people get so uppity about the fact that a language has evolved.

Well, you and I haven’t got time to mourn the relegation of Shakespearean English to the theatre, even if we want to. We’ve got work to do here and now, and these days we write as we speak.

“Writing as people speak” is not a cop out

It’s a faster and more efficient way of putting across ideas and communicating messages.

And because you don’t have the formality of old-fashioned “grammatically correct” syntax and clauses and adjectives and adverbs and everything else to hide behind, your writing is standing out there, naked, all by itself.

So it’s got to be strong enough to hold its own without the support that old-fashioned writing often gave to less-than-strong messages.

Having said that old-fashioned writing with perfect grammar and syntax and spelling etc. can be forgotten, I suppose this should be a very short section because today we can all write what we like in the way that we like.

Er, wait a minute.

Rather as with golf or poker, with writing you need to know what the rules are before you can benefit from breaking them.

Now, I’m not going to launch into a lesson in English grammar here because that would be insulting your intelligence and education.

What I am going to say is use your knowledge of English grammar, your common sense, and also your knowledge of what your readers will be comfortable with: or if you want to push the envelope, what your readers will not be comfortable with, but will feel excitingly challenged by.

(Don’t forget, however, that there’s a big difference between being a bit shocking and burying a claw hammer in their skulls.)

What you really do need to avoid is not the blatant, deliberate thumbing of the nose at grammatical correctness such as that found in consumer advertising campaigns, but the piffling little mistakes you see in some pieces of writing which are simply the result of ignorance and carelessness.

These are the goofs that separate the professionals from the amateurs:

**The text that talks about “you” in the same sentence as “them” when referring to the same person (subject-verb agreement)
**The long-winded sentence that has so many dangling participles you could decorate a Christmas tree with them.
**The absence of an apostrophe when we talk about the “it’s” contraction of “it is” and the inclusion of an apostrophe when we talk about “its” referring to something belonging to “it.”
**And in the UK at least, the inclusion of an adverb between the two halves of an infinitive…

…many Brits still cringe when they hear the Star Trek line of “to boldly go.” In the USA no-one seems to mind. Vive la différence.

These small slips and goofs in grammar, punctuation and syntax really do cheapen people’s writing and drop the writer’s credibility into the doo-doo.

But the bold gestures — the one-word sentence, the verbless sentence, the folkloric use of slang and so-on — these are so obvious that no-one is going to think they are oversights. This makes them acceptable – even effective.

If you take a look at some top-end consumer advertising in the past before everything went online, you’ll see how such deliberate, bold grammatical mistakes not only worked well, but also managed to make the advertising look classy and svelte.

The secret of success there was the intelligent and measured misuse of grammar, and that’s something professional copywriters are very good at.

For everyday writers, however, remember that there’s only a fine line between the slick and the sloppy and it takes experience and expertise to keep everything on the slick side. It’s a lot safer to stay away from the borderline so if you want to play the brinkmanship game, you have been warned.

Spelling and related issues

Now that I have thoroughly trashed all attempts at making this article into a paragon of grammatical virtue, let’s see if I can do the same to spelling.

Well, no, actually. Spelling is something I value. I know that sounds very old-fashioned and stuffy in the light of modern-day text messaging and online shortcuts and abbreviations.

But like most things there are good reasons behind what sometimes appears to be unnecessary rule-following. In the case of good spelling, I believe the reason is to maintain uniformity, which leads to accuracy.

The other reason why some people see good spelling as desirable is to demonstrate the writer’s level of education and literacy, but I’m not sure if this is a particularly accurate gauge.

One of the worst spellers I’ve ever known was a doctor who could write out prescriptions using perfect 20-character pharmaceutical terms but couldn’t write an email to his mother without 6 or 7 goofs in it.

The other atrocious speller I know is a brilliant mathematician and definitely is not dyslexic. He thinks written words suck.

Most word processing software includes some sort of spelling checker device and these are helpful, but not infallible.

They will pick up typos and glaring mistakes but, being machines, are far too logical to cope with the insanity of the English language and can’t deal with homophones or wrong words that are spelled right or apostrophes appearing in the wrong place.

Many word processing packages also incorporate grammar/syntax nannies, rather like mine which sticks a disapproving coloured line under what it suspects is incorrect. Ignore yours at your peril but remember sometimes it really is wrong.

Online, you’ll find systems through which you can run your text and they will pick up on any grammar and even readability issues.

Most of those services also offer apps and other downloads so they are embedded in your IT system. They all work hard to cover absolutely everything, but they don’t solve everything. Solution? Use your common sense.

“International” English: does such a thing exist?

Finally, most word processing packages give you the option to select UK or USA spellings, which leads us directly into another can of worms.

Many people ask me how text should be spelled for international English. My answer is I don’t know. Possibly you should spell according to your country of origin, assuming English is your first language, or if not, then the way English is spelled in the country in which you learned to speak it.

On the other hand, if you are British or learned English in Britain but now live in the United States and want your book to sell predominantly there, possibly you should use American spellings.

If you are Indian and learned English as a second language there you need to use that form, especially if you are aiming your book at a pan-Indian market. If you come from another country where English is the predominant business/social language, you need to use it as expressed there.

Much as many of us might hate the idea, does it really matter? And if our phrasing here (in this case mainly British English) is easily understood who the hell cares if it’s not “quite right” for, say, English speakers in South Africa or Sri Lanka?

As long as readers in those countries understand and appreciate what we write, that’s all that matters. Local styles, types and affectations do not matter.

How much importance do you attach to strictly correct grammar and spelling?

Please share your views!

Adapted from Suzan’s forthcoming title, “How To Write A Brilliant Nonfiction Book,” to be published later in 2020 by BetterBooksMedia.


Photo by Ivan Shilov on Unsplash