Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Willsin the Pedant

It seems that with the advent of the internet, the general standards of written communication have fallen markedly. Personally, I have immense trouble wading through, say, comments on websites where the writers seem blissfully unaware not only of all those funny squiggles around the letter keys (it’s called “punctuation”, folks!), but also quite blithe as regards the existence of the SHIFT key.

It’s not simply the province of those commenting, either. There’s a ravenous beast out there called humankind, and it needs its news feed. Even if that news is simply that Jennifer Aniston’s dog is currently in a state of depression. So to feed that gaping maw, processes are streamlined and errors are made. By those writing and by those charged with fact checking and editing.

Honestly, we’re in a society which canonises sportsmen (and grudgingly admits that sportswomen are okay…at least when they have nice tits). We laud men and women (but mostly men) who spend years honing their skills in order to knock balls around with different pieces of sporting equipment. Golf is a great example. The difference between a good shot and a bad shot may be as infinitesimal as a single degree of angle, or a couple of miles per hour on the swing. Tiny differences. Until recently, Tiger Woods was second only to God in awesomeness. Because on the golf course, for 15 years, he made fewer mistakes than anyone else.

Why do we not have the same kind of global admiration for people with great command of their language? We watch avidly and listen intently when hot young actors tell us how to live our lives. “Y’know, y’ just gotta be true to yourself. Follow your dreams. Anything’s possible.” Ground-breaking stuff. But let Willsin the Pedant point out that it’s “their fault you’re here” and not “there fault your hear” and eyes are rolled and fingers pointed. Usually middle ones.

“Yeah, but you know what I meant.” This is the hollow argument that is often presented as defence. And it’s one I don’t particularly support. Let’s look at it in terms that this modern world might understand: if Roger Federer serves up a double fault, he doesn’t turn to the umpire and say “Yeah, but you know what I meant.”

For me, it’s a simple equation. If it’s not right…it’s wrong. We all make mistakes. That’s not the issue. What disturbs me most is the staggering growth of an utterly uncaring attitude.

Sure, the English language is confusing and apparently illogical. But so is the off-side rule in soccer, the LBW rule in cricket, the drive-through penalty in motor racing, the fact that Anna Kournikova was taken seriously as a tennis player and the thought that a dog can actually get depressed. If we can accept, embrace, mayhaps even understand those complexities, surely we can remember where to put our apostrophes...right?


Sharazade said...

Oh, the poor thing! What is it depressed about? Just kidding. I didn't know Jennifer Aniston even had a dog.

I think it's beyond the simple equation of right/wrong, though. To me, the point of correctness and care with spelling and punctuation (let alone word choice and syntax and all the rest) is about subtlety and depth. "Me Tarzan, you Jane" is clear. Even the implied meaning is clear. But try publishing that as erotica, and you won't get far.

When you toss aside conventions for the "you understood what I meant," you're setting the bar pretty low. You're losing the beauty of English. A language has a certain integrity, and I think when you respect (and even honor) that as a writer, then you will be respected by readers.

Willsin Rowe said...

*I think it's beyond the simple equation of right/wrong, though.*

Agreed. Right/wrong is an excellent foundation, though it's not the be-all and end-all. It's fun to break rules, for instance (especially for comedic effect), but it's really only effective if you know what the rules are. On the other hand, excellent word choice and subtle story-telling can exist WITHOUT correct punctuation and's just bloody hard to wade through.

And I definitely agree with your comment about "setting the bar low". I've blogged long and hard (heehee) about how I love English for what it is: a magpie language, an excellent and adaptive form of communication. Or, as my bio says: "I love the complications of English and the naturistic charm that results. I fear that streamlining it allows function to usurp form. Nature is beautiful without adherence to symmetry or consistency."