Noah Webster created his first dictionary to help Americans build a nation on the most basic level. Like the war, his “Blue-Backed Speller” was revolutionary. Why should citizens of the newly United States stay yoked to Britain with words like traveller and colour, when traveler and color are a better match for how we speak and write?
The purpose of any dictionary is to aid communication. If each person spells a word however s/he hears it, can people be sure of understanding each other? Is Shaksper the same man as Shakespeare? Does it matter if your plan affects or effects the solution to my problem? Webster, like other lexicographers, believed that when a nation agrees to spell the same word the same way, its citizens communicate better.
The same belief underlies the rules of grammar and punctuation. Take the serial comma. Unfashionable though it’s become lately, it can play a key role in a sentence. If Mr. Colbert’s will leaves his fortune “to be divided equally between Albert, Bertram and Delbert,” does that mean Albert, Bertram, and Delbert each get one-third, or Albert gets half and Bertram and Delbert split the other half?
Remember the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves? How you interpret that title depends on whether and how it’s punctuated.
In our Internet-centered era, written messages often are aimed at thousands or millions of readers. Savvy marketers pander to our resistance to lemming-think by hyping a mass illusion of individuality. Spelling and grammar are cast as villains–pawns in some evil conspiracy to stop you from expressing your full, real self. Convenience dovetails with this scenario: it’s only a text/e-mail; who cares? The consensus becomes: Why should I waste my time on following a bunch of old rules when (A) I have Spell-Check, and (B) everybody knows what I mean anyway?
Thus the following first paragraph in Daniel Newman’s June 17 e-column in Forbes:
“There may not be a CEO or entrepreneur on the planet who doesn’t smile just a little bit when they hear the phrase ROI. In a world that is fueled by obvious returns in periods to short to make meaningful progress (thank you stock market), the idea that measurability exists provides piece of mind to so many of those responsible for the vision, strategy and execution of their respective organizations.”
What is the impact of the typographical and grammatical errors in this paragraph? Spell-Check didn’t catch them. Do they keep us from understanding what point(s) Newman is making? Not so much as they reinforce the confusion created by his awkward syntax, i.e., arrangement of words in sentences. Does this opening paragraph give you confidence in the accuracy and importance of what its author is about to tell you? For me it created doubts, which were confirmed by this conclusion:
“What may be the most important take away from all of this is that the desire to connect dots that don’t connect needs to be avoided at all costs when trying to measure the ROI of certain marketing practices. For instance, the value of a follow, a like or (gulp) an impression; sure you can build an equation that will give you an answer but don’t be upset when I pass judgment on your for making ridiculous correlations.”
Takeaway? I didn’t learn any useful information from this column.
Spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax are not handcuffs or girdles, much less weapons of an elitist conspiracy. They are tools, like hammers and saws, for building reliable structures. You don’t necessarily need a hammer–you can whack a nail into a wall with your shoe and hang a picture on it, if you don’t mind sweeping up broken glass the next morning. You don’t necessarily need to take care how you spell or phrase a text, or even a blog or a column, if you don’t care whether the message received matches the message you meant to send. However, consider your purpose. If you are asking people you don’t know to trust you–in particular, to buy something from you, whether that’s an idea, a proposal, or your new book–you’ll do well to use the same language to send your message as they’re using to receive it.
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