I’ve been down with a bad cold for the past two weeks, which has made my brain fuzzy and my voice hoarse. It got me thinking about how circumstances like illness, fatigue, or other constraints can dull our faculties to the point where we find it very hard to communicate effectively. I remember the first time I took federal public service French-language testing, when I was in my early twenties. I had a cold the day I took my oral exam, and I believe it nearly cost me the grade I eventually earned. I find it incredibly difficult to properly pronounce French when I am congested, and the first reviewer wrote a B on my evaluation form, which was then clearly changed to a C by a second person. He or she obviously was able to listen past my terrible pronunciation and hear the strength of my command of the language, for which I was so grateful.
So it should be when we communicate with others who may not be expressing themselves clearly for any reason. The language we are speaking or writing in may not be their native tongue. They may be under-educated, or ill, or tired, or distracted by any one of a million things. I know a brilliant and well-educated woman who was mortified to find that she had written “loose” when she meant “lose” in an email sent late at night. She has three young children and was completely exhausted from a day spent with them. If that’s not enough to dull one’s capacity for language, I don’t know what is. Does that mean we should mock her, deem her unworthy of respect, or correct her scathingly? Absolutely not. It means that she, like all of us who are human and try to communicate with one another, makes mistakes.
That’s not to say that it’s all right to be lazy about language. As a professional communicator, I think it’s essential that we try to be clear and correct with our spoken and written language, because it helps avoid misunderstanding, which can in turn breed ignorance, anger, abuse, and apathy.
So yes, I do think correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are things that everyone should learn in school and practice regularly. I do think it’s better to spell out words than to use short forms (even on Twitter or when texting). It does upset me when I see people say that they don’t care about how they write something, as long as their message gets through. I want to tell them that their attitude conveys a lot more than just what they intended to say, and that extra information may not reflect well on them.
But I also believe that mistakes happen, people get sick or tired or distracted, and while it may be amusing to mock people for screwing up, I think it’s better to try and help them out if we can. Some people don’t want to be helped (see previous paragraph) but many people would love it if someone would offer, in a kind and generous manner, to help them improve their writing. If it’s a skill you possess, I hope you share it when and where you can. I attempt to do the same, and when I make mistakes, I try to accept any corrections with grace and gratitude.
Life is meaningless without connection, and language is one of the primary ways in which we connect. Clearer language means better connection, stronger relationships, and greater understanding. What in the world could be better than that?