My daughter and son hated to show me their English homework. Despite my intention to be gentle, their writing never completely satisfied their old man, who spent his days prodding journalists to write better.
I remember being perturbed that papers graded by their teachers would come home with spelling and grammar errors uncorrected or with no points deducted for those mistakes. At a school open house once, a teacher stood in front of parents and pronounced that she was more concerned with storytelling and creativity than grammar and spelling. The horror.
The problem, however, is that writing a good story depends on sound grammar and correctly spelled words. Without those basic elements, the story you’re trying to tell won’t make sense to many people. It’s not a surprise the education system drifted away from focusing on grammar and spelling. For people of my generation, those lessons about past participles, prepositions, articles, subjects and predicates were excruciating. Very few 12-year-olds enjoyed diagramming sentences, and we all thought that what we had to say was more important than how we said it. So, when my generation became teachers and principals and school board members, English language education shifted away from teaching all those hard-to-understand rules.
Let’s examine how the rules of written expression were preserved and perpetuated in the 20th century. Through most of the 1900s, almost all of what people read was published in books, magazines and newspapers. Most of the writers for those publications needed to meet generally accepted standards for spelling and grammar. One of my college courses in the 1970s was almost entirely about the Associated Press Stylebook, which described how certain words must be spelled, when to use capital letters, where to use certain kinds of punctuation and how certain words should be used.
One of my favorite examples of AP style were the prescribed usages of “more than” and “over.” The word “over” was NOT to be used when comparing something numerical — dollar amounts or distances, for example. According to AP style, it was incorrect to write “He made over 1,000 cookies for Christmas.” The sentence should be written “He made more than 1,000 cookies for Christmas.” The word “over” was reserved for “crossing over a bridge,” or “he went over there,” or “he climbed over the fence.” I still follow this rule. The Associated Press last year removed it from the style book, relenting to the overwhelmingly common usage of “over $9 million” or “the flood killed over 60 people.” (I blame television reporters and anchors for spreading misuse of “over.”)
Without rules about grammar and spelling, written communication degrades into something that is understood less and less. My children’s English teachers would have you believe that good writing is about expression, but that’s only half-true. Good writing is about communication and understanding. If I express myself in way you can’t understand — outside the bounds of the rules of grammar and spelling, for example — what I’ve written has no value.
Before the Internet Age, editors reviewed most published articles at least once, usually more often. They rightfully saw themselves as gatekeepers of language. Good editors — although they are a pain in the butt — are more than just enforcers of grammar, spelling and style rules. Good editors spot flaws in logic, recognize gaps in information and spot inaccuracies (Is it Whittaker Street or Whitaker Street?). They can also help turn a mundane phrase into something sparkling and memorable.
Today, in the Internet Age, anyone can publish what they write — no editor required. Poor, unedited writing appears next to good writing in Facebook posts, in blogs, on Twitter, in comments on articles, in self-published books and in white papers, just about everywhere on the Internet. Poor writing is spreading offline, too. I see it in printed newspapers, magazines and books. Here’s an incorrect construction I see a lot: “Children that write to Santa Claus don’t always get what they want.” What’s wrong with that sentence? Children are people, and that makes them “whos.” It should be written, “Children who write to Santa Claus …”
Another common grammatical irritant is a similar problem with pronouns such as “them,” “they” and “their” being used instead of “it” or “its.” For example, “The Mom & Pop Co. uses their website to sell merchandise” should be written as “The Mom & Pop Co. uses its website …” A business is a thing, an “it,” and as such it gets an impersonal pronoun, not a personal one like “them,” “his” or “hers.”
Is this a big deal? After all, even when the usage is incorrect, “you know what I mean.” That’s true, for now. But I worry that over time, widespread ignorance of good grammar will diminish our ability to communicate, to express ourselves and to have our stories be understood. The inability to understand each other through a common, precise language will have broader and damaging consequences.
If you care about whether readers understand your writing, take a little time to brush up on the rules. Every chance I get, I recommend “The Elements of Style,” a beautifully short book that covers grammar and usage. If you’re not sure how to spell a word, pull out a dictionary, search an online dictionary or just type “define:” followed by the word you want to spell or define into the Google search bar.
I understand that languages change and evolve. We create new words, and others fall out of favor. Sometimes we change the meanings of words (Remember when “gay” meant happy and festive?). For me, the bottom line is how well our use of language conveys our intended meaning. It’s a worthy cause, don’t you think?