Sunday, 5 June 2016

Why grammar, spelling and sentence structure really do matter in casual writing.

We've all seen it - someone slips up on his grammar in a Facebook post, someone else lands on him like a ton of bricks, three or four other people go for the someone else with flamethrowers and a massive free-for-all erupts, with undignified ranting and, depending on the forum, perhaps some really good offensive memes. It's one of the most common tropes one can see in writing groups, and yet no one ever seems to be bored with the argument.

Two camps are evident in this ongoing war. The first takes massive offence at any perceived or real imperfection in a poster's English. The second takes the view that the first group are Nazis, have sticks up their arses, and expresses various other views in progressively more vulgar terms.

Without wishing to be drawn into yet another flame war myself, I have to say that I'm with the first group, although with the caveat that this applies only to writers or would-be writers. If a person isn't very well educated, he can be expected to slip up occasionally, and there is absolutely no point in getting all bent out of shape over the spelling mistakes of such a person. Perfect English doesn't make one a better hairdresser, or cook, or brickie's mate. You might be a bit sad contemplating the amount of tax you've paid over the years for state schools, but that doesn't need to be foisted on the person.

But writers. Ah yes - writers. People who work with the written word, who build airy castles made out of words and sentences. People who sell these creations for money. If you are calling yourself a writer, whether published or not, you have, in my view, absolutely no business to be inflicting your illiteracy on anyone. The fact you are in an informal setting has no real bearing on this.

Consider table manners. When you sit down for a quick bite of lunch with your husband, when you're having a solitary breakfast before dashing off to the office - you don't require of yourself the degree of precision and formality that you would bring to, say, a gala dinner at Government House. There is hopefully, however, a minimum standard below which you don't descend, even when alone. You're not going to, for example, shovel up stew with your hands, or drink directly from the milk bottle. ARE you, Virginia? No, although if you're en famille or just with a school friend, you might speak a few words with your mouth full. 

Of course, if you were raised by wolves and don't know any better, people are almost certainly going to cut you a lot of slack about your table manners, and you will no doubt enjoy many happy evenings at Pizza Hut, although you are unlikely to be invited to Nobu any time soon.

But if you do know better, and if you behave like a pig on purpose at a formal occasion (I'm reminded of that truly disgusting scene in The Assassin) then it is deliberate ugliness, like young bogans spreading their legs and burping and farting on the tram; a kind of bullying, or perhaps a kind of vandalism, but certainly rude, uncivilised and hostile. 

Similarly, split infinitives, dangling modifiers and the egregious intransitive 'lay' are, when used by one writer to another, a sign either of overt hostility or of incompetence.

Now I am aware that many people disagree with me about this. You can read an example of the contrary view HERE, both in exposition and in a practical demonstration. Of course I do agree with Hutchinson's assertion that you should be yourself. No doubt you should; but I feel one can be oneself just as well in a clean shirt as in a filth-smeared rag.

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