Does Grammar Matter?
August 23, 2022 • Phil Webb
Word on the street is that we’re all getting worse at spelling and grammar. My hairdresser says it’s because of the auto-correct and the Twitter, and if we’re not careful, all of our spelling and grammar jobs will be outsourced to China. Is any of this true? Maybe. Does any of it really matter? I’m not sure that it does.
Don’t get me wrong; spelling and grammar are important. When you use language, you’re trying to communicate something to somebody. If that person doesn’t understand what you’re expecting them to understand, there could be serious consequences. Especially if the misunderstanding goes unnoticed. And especially if one of you is a nuclear submarine commander.
It’s important to get things right the first time, too. By the time you’ve explained what you really meant, the damage might have already been done. Even if you identify and resolve the confusion before any of the missiles have been launched, after-effects can linger. I’ve held a grudge because of something that I thought somebody had said, even after I’ve later figured out that it was all a big misunderstanding. In a situation like that, my brain stores two separate memories. There’s a memory of being offended, and there’s a memory of figuring out that it was all a big misunderstanding. To begin with, these memories are connected. Over time, the connection fades, and I’m left with an out-of-context memory of being offended by something that you said about my cross-stitching on the group chat. I will never forgive you.
If we could all agree on how we’re going to use commas; if we could all come together on the meaning of certain words; if we could all remember to be very, very careful with our pronouns, it would make these kinds of misunderstandings much less likely. In a world where large groups of people who don’t necessarily trust each other need to work together to address complicated and serious issues, crystal-clear communication is extremely important, and consistent usage of grammar and spelling would help to achieve that clarity.
But there’s a limit to how much consistency we need. Yes, it’s possible for a misplaced comma to change the meaning of a sentence. Yes, it’s possible for the new meaning to be plausible enough to be mistaken for the writer’s intent. Yes, it’s possible for this misunderstanding to result in a serious situation on a submarine somewhere. It’s possible, but it’s probably quite uncommon. For most people, ending a sentence with a preposition is unlikely to start World War III, or even a minor regional conflict.
If I can communicate at a level where other people generally know what I mean, and there are unrelated reasons why I shouldn’t be trusted with the launch codes to begin with, are there any other significant consequences of my spelling and grammar mistakes? I can only think of one. Judgment. Judgment is a very real and sometimes very serious consequence of poor spelling and grammar. I don’t believe that it should be, but it is. If I make a mistake, people will decide that I’m dumb. They will decide that I’m dumb regardless of whether my mistake caused any confusion about my meaning, and regardless of how profound and insightful that meaning might have been. I used “your” when I should have used “you’re” so I’m a big dum-dum now, and my contributions to the YouTube comments section are no longer to be taken seriously.
The impacts of this judgment can vary. Having a stranger reply to my YouTube comment with “*your”, as much as it may sting in the moment, is unlikely to have a lasting impact on my life. Failing to change that stranger’s mind about the moon landing because of my substandard grammar is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the space exploration industry. But having my job application discarded because I used a word that doesn’t officially exist could be a little more serious. It’s unfair, of course. When Roald Dahl made up words, he was a genius. When I do it, I’m a moron. And I can tell you from experience that the Roald Dahl defence, no matter how vigorously argued, does not go down well with the human resources manager. It’s downright infuriable.
Addressing my grammatical and spelling shortcomings would help me to appear more professional. It would increase my chances of getting jobs, and being taken seriously in YouTube comments sections. I know these things to be true. Do you know what else would increase my chances of getting jobs and being taken seriously? If people didn’t put so much stock in spelling and grammar in the first place. If we could all just cut each other some slack, focus on the meaning rather than the language choices, and ask for clarification when it’s necessary instead of scoring points when it’s possible, the world would be just a little more pleasant for everybody. It would be wonderful, in fact. Avoidable nuclear disasters would be a little more frequent, of course, but I think we can all agree that that’s an acceptable trade-off for never having to talk about apostrophes ever again.
Do you think spelling and grammar are more important than I do? Have you found any mistakes in this post that you’d like to mention? Would you like to fight me in the carpark? Let me know in the comments.