I can already tell there’s a lynch mob forming outside my apartment building, and all I’ve done is asked some people for opinions about whether they think this would make a good blog post or not. Nevertheless, I think this is something important that we need to have a conversation about. Preferably sooner rather than later.
You see, there is a contingent out there, led by frothy-mouthed disciples of the black god “Proper English”, with Eats, Shoots, and Leaves firmly in hand, who have designated themselves the sole arbiters of what constitutes good communication. Well, sort of. They thankfully keep to writing, for now, and have yet to launch their all-out assault on other media. Unfortunately since we live and work on the internet, 75% of the communicating we do is writing. Now, I’m certainly not a blind contrarian, despite what my partner may say, but I take offense to a large, faceless, amorphous group telling me how I should and shouldn’t write.
As much as some of the things on this list may irk me, I don’t feel it would be hypocritical to say that written communication in the English language will die out if we start ignoring some of the more obnoxious tenets of the self-chosen English Elite. In fact, I’ve found that the worst writing generally comes from those who cling to these dogmatic rules without the slightest allowance for humanity or creativity, followed closely by people who just can’t be bothered to be careful or proofread and instead write with the wanton abandon of a hyperactive kitten.
6. Formal Spelling. Everyone has one friend who will absolutely pitch a fit if you send them a text message with the letter “U” taking the place of “you”. I happen to be blessed with several of these, and I want to throttle each and every one of them quite often. Usually, these people are either older, or work in a literary profession (most often teaching, though they all secretly wish they could be literary journal editors). They will rail against the “U”s and the “r”s and the “4”s and the “k”s and the “thx”s. “And why not?”, you may be asking yourself, “Is it really too much work to type out a whole word?”
No, of course it isn’t. But neither is it necessary. When someone sends you a message that says “R u here yet?”, you knew what they meant, correct? The message came through, and it did so efficiently and directly. How is this not a good thing? What many forget is that languages are ever evolving, and ever changing, with the sole purpose of being able to transfer the most information possible in the simplest, most complete, most efficient way possible. An even bigger issue here is that most of these people have absolutely no problem writing “ok”, ignoring that there was a time when those two letters were seen as a sign of the coming Englishocalypse.
5. Immaculate spelling, for the wrong reason. Before I get completely flamed out of existence, let me clarify: spelling is important, but not for the reason people think it is. To hear the English luddites go on and on, one would think that spell-check was destroying the world. It isn’t. Not even close, and we should all take a deep breath and get over it.
The problem is that many people have built up the perception that spelling is somehow tied to intelligence and the thinking process. It isn’t. I know that data is not the plural of anecdote, but I would say that of my group of friends, the correlation between spelling ability, intelligence, and success is roughly 0. What spelling does tell us is how much attention a writer pays to their work, and this is the true importance of spelling. So, if you’re sending a cover letter to a prospective employer, perhaps you should show some finer attention to detail and double check all of your spelling. If you’re sending a quick email to friends or coworkers, or you’re throwing up a 600-word blog post about your company Christmas party, don’t sweat it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. People aren’t, so why should our informal writing be?
4. Irony. People with more books than brains will tell you that “irony” has a very specific definition. They will, if they are less well-read than they want people to believe, go on for some length about Oedipus. They will berate and brow-beat and generally raise a fuss, all the while patting themselves gleefully on the back.
Well, the jokes on you, Mr. Irony Police. Words might have specific definitions, though they largely depend on which dictionary you’re using, but they most certainly don’t have specific meaning. Or, as Humpty Dumpty once said to Alice,
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
While I think that might be stretching it just a bit, the sentiment is spot-on. Words are constructs, and they are symbols, and they are nothing more. As anyone versed in semiotics can tell you, symbols are fluid, and derive their meaning solely from a consensus of what their meaning ought to be in this particular point in time. In that regard, it is absolutely foolish to cling to an outdated definition when common usage has so clearly moved on and left it behind.
3. Internal punctuation. Really, it could be punctuation in general. This is where the grammar Nazis will really start going crazy. Punctuation is mostly unnecessary. There, I said it. Ok, actually, let me clarify: punctuation based around strict rules of what goes where is mostly unnecessary. Think about: what is writing but transcribing speech to a more permanent medium? And when was the last time you worried about punctuation in your speech?
Of course, it can be said that speech involves all manner of additional cues and non-verbalized touches that serve to punctuate it, but these are inserted naturally, and without the need to think about whether you need an oxford comma in your next sentence or not. Punctuation in writing, especially informal web writing, should be similar. Don’t try to follow AP Style to the absolute limit, and instead use punctuation to denote the non-verbal cues and gestures that serve to animate and give deeper context to spoken conversation. Sure, the “sticklers” will recoil at this, but really any group that defines themselves by a strict adherence to outdated, outmoded, and mostly useless arbitrary rules doesn’t deserve to have a say in much of anything.
Remember that conversation, whether written or oral, is about passing information, and most of that information is obvious and self-evident from context. Don’t sweat whether you need to insert a comma or a semi-colon, just put in whichever feels like it would convey the tone and rhythm of your conversation best and go with it. Trust me, if your writing is thematically and stylistically sound, people will understand it easily, punctuation or no.
2. Ignore extravagant punctuation. There is a resurgency in unused, unneeded punctuation marks growing. Please help me stop it. I don’t care how humorous “interrobang” sounds, it is cluttering up the language. The whole point of language is to go from a point where complex ideas are complicated to explain to a point where complicated ideas are simple to explain. Adding tons of punctuation marks whose functions are easily replaced with some combination of standard punctuation is anathema to the growth of language.
Similarly, don’t feel the need to reach for a semi-colon when a comma will do. Don’t add three periods (the oft-misused ellipsis) when one conveys the same conversational pause. Don’t get bullied into using punctuation you are not intimately familiar with. It’s just not necessary, and it clutters things up and makes things that much more complicated to read, write, and communicate.
1. Fuck the apostrophe. Really, this is the most absurd piece of punctuation ever devised. Think about it this way: if some country devised a road sign with meanings so obtuse and fluid that most ignored it, and the few who bothered got it wrong as often as not, would you assume the problem was with the vast majority of drivers, or with a poorly designed road sign? This is a huge pet peeve of mine. It’s useful, for sure, but it needs to be simplified and standardized. The problem with the apostrophe is that it grew out of many different styles and languages and has become an absolute jumbled mess.
Want an example of what I mean? Here. Why is it that anyone thinks it’s a good idea to have 13 separate and often contradictory rules for one single piece of punctuation? Especially when some of the individual rules themselves have contradictory exceptions? e.g.
The plurals for capital letters and numbers used as nouns are not formed with apostrophes.
She consulted with three M.D.s.
She went to three M.D.s’ offices.
The apostrophe is needed here to show plural possessive.
She learned her ABCs.
the 1990s not the 1990’s
the ’90s or the mid-’70s not the ’90’s or the mid-’70’s
She learned her times tables for 6s and 7s.
Use apostrophes with capital letters and numbers when the meaning would be unclear otherwise.
Please dot your i’s.
You don’t mean is.
Ted couldn’t distinguish between his 6’s and 0’s.
You need to use the apostrophe to indicate the plural of zero or it will look like the word Os.To be consistent within a sentence, you would also use the apostrophe to indicate the plural of 6’s.
Grammar Nazis would love to tell you how this all somehow makes sense, and is the right and proper way to do things. Don’t believe them. The sad truth is that grammar Nazis, or ‘sticklers’ as they prefer to be called, are the pack-rats of language. They are the scary old people on Hoarders, afraid to throw out a single newspaper clipping from 1972, just in case they may need it some time. In the meantime, their 18 cats have long ago been lost somewhere in the rubbish, and some of the piles are beginning to develop rudimentary sentience.
Language should evolve, and change, and become simpler while simultaneously becoming more powerful, and clinging to the relics of days gone past, stacking them on on top of another until whats left is the kind of mess that requires 13 rules, each with its own exception, and the feeling by most people that they might as well give up since trying to keep it all straight is a futile endeavor.
So go ahead, fellow internet writer! Play fast and loose with grammar and spelling. Use colloquialisms, contractions, and common slang. And do so with your head held high and a proud smile on your face, because while the sticklers worry about the proper way to punctuate a sentence, you’re spreading your ideas to the world. At the end of the day, which is really more important?