Nitpicking grammar in the digital age
With more and more communication happening digitally, is it time to stop the grammar gripes?
With so much of our communication happening digitally, can we ease up a bit on the grammar nitpicking? (MCT file photo)
Most of us aren't tweeting about the Bay of Pigs. But to what extent are our status updates and twitter feeds and text messages today's equivalent of the recorded conversation?
Seventy-two percent of adult cell phone users send and receive regular text messages, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. The numbers rise to 87 percent for teens, who average 50 text messages a day.
We're not speaking into a microphone, but we're certainly recording our thoughts in ways that make them both public and possibly eternal. So how careful should we be about our grammar?
Part of the beauty of the JFK conversations is their candor—relative candor, given that all parties knew they were being taped, of course. But unlike written documents, there's no editing and re-writing. You're getting their thoughts in real time, even with an occasional misplaced modifier.
Which has us wondering if it's time for a social media grammar gripe moratorium. If more and more of our conversations are happening digitally, maybe it's time to afford them the same leeway we offer our verbal exchanges.
"It's almost impossible to speak for 30 minutes and not make a speech error," says Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. "As someone who has had his grammar picked apart based on radio interviews, it's sort of scary."
(Kleinedler once had the audacity to say, during an NPR interview about the American Heritage Usage Panel, "Every year, we send out the panel a ballot full of questions asking their opinions." This earned the scorn of one Arnold Zwicky, blogger, who took issue with "send" being followed by "out." Apparently this is a dative alternation. Or something.)
"No one can stand up to that scrutiny," Kleinedler contends. We agree.
"I tend to cut people a lot of slack when I know they are writing from a mobile device," says Mignon Fogarty, author of "Grammar Girl's Punctuation 911: Your Guide to Writing it Right" (Henry Holt and Co.). "The keyboards are difficult to use, auto-correct can mess you up, and you're often away from work but doing your best to respond anyway."
And with 72 percent of grown-ups texting, chances are what you're reading — be it tweet, status update or text message — originated from a mobile device.
"Because I'm Grammar Girl, I always proofread my mobile messages and go back and correct errors," says Fogarty. "But with other people, I ignore any errors—I'm usually just grateful to get a quick response."
Kleinedler endorses a manners-based approach to grammar gripes.
"I think the things that are off limits are items where it would be rude for you to point out error," he says. "So, for example, a politician's tweets and facebook posts could (and some would say should) be held to higher scrutiny than your brother-in-law's."
What, after all, is motivating your scolding?
"Is one picking apart a friend's e-mail errors to feel superior?" Kleinedler asks. "Stick to Words With Friends."
But a sensitivity to your recipient's pet peeves never hurts.
"A writer should know his or her intended audience," Kleinedler says. "If you're writing to someone who you know really cares about proper English, spell out 'u' and get their/they're/there straightened out. People will always judge you, so write with that in mind."
Fogarty seconds that emotion.
"If you regularly write posts and emails with errors, some people will think you're dumb, unprofessional and careless," she says. "But if you regularly correct other people's posts and emails, some people will think you're a curmudgeonly boor."