Hello, thorny topic. Good to know I’m getting into one of these again so soon after a big hiatus.
I’m an editor, and a big part of my job is making sure that spelling and grammar are correct in people’s writing. Or at least, correct enough. I’ll get to that in a sec.
But I’m also a writer who believes in getting a bit creative. I like to try and always use the words and sentence constructions that mean exactly what I want them to mean, even if that meaning is not exactly what they literally say.
I mean, if you want to get really pedantic about it, I count at least 3 style and grammar errors in this blog post so far. A lot of grammar enthusiasts would probably cringe reading my writing. I’m one of those people who met the news that ‘literally’ now also meant ‘not literally’ with a resounding shrug. Same with the addition of ‘lol’ and ‘twerk’ to the OED. I vividly remember getting a talk at my old editors’ society with someone who was involved in some of the meetings where people decided what new words the dictionaries would add. She found it amusing (and so do I) that many of the words that appeared on their lists of “most likely to end up in the dictionary” overlapped with the society of teachers’ list of “words we’d least like to end up in the dictionary” (generated in another convention usually held at a similar time).
My view of language is that it’s a wiggly, squishy thing. It’s always changing, we constantly reshape it, and usually the time you spend saying something shouldn’t be done is approximately the time it takes someone else to go and do it. Fundamentally, language is a tool for communication.
That’s not to say that I don’t think spelling and grammar are important aspects of language. It’s just saying that I think they’re more malleable than a lot of people give them credit for, and I’d like to talk a little bit about how I, personally, reconcile those things.
That sentence above is really the crux of my opinion: Fundamentally, language is a tool for communication. And communication isn’t a one-way street. If I say something and it’s taken a way I didn’t intend it, that is just as much a problem with the biases I brought into the conversation as it is a problem with the biases the other person brought in. Therefore, it is in my best interest to be as clear as possible, and only create ambiguities deliberately.
Spelling and grammar are tools to get that done. It’s a little bit like road rules: the reason why breaking the road rules is dangerous is not only because of the risk of losing control of the car at greater speeds or in unfavourable conditions. It’s because you’re doing something that other people don’t expect and haven’t accounted for. Even a car that’s going too slowly can cause accidents, even though it’s not technically breaking rules, because the other drivers haven’t accounted for it.
Spelling and grammar are a way to keep things consistent. The more you’re using spelling and grammar that are easily recognisable, the easier your content will be to read.
For some people, this is going to be priority one. While it doesn’t always feel like the case, I think it should be for government groups who produce documents for the public. It’s in the interests of everyone for those public documents to be able to be read by the largest number of people possible. That’s not just a function of correct spelling and grammar, but also about a plain style, but that’s a whole different argument.
For a lot of writers, that’s also going to be a priority. Some writers want to test the limits of what’s possible with language, playing with styles and grammar, or just have a style that will make the writing more ‘difficult’ to read than the average book, and that’s fine. But there are some writers who will want to get their writing to be as clear and direct as possible, as one of their priorities.
Please note I didn’t say ‘correct’ spelling and grammar above, there. I firmly do not believe that 100% OED-Strunk&White-approved-standard-and-proper grammar is a necessity to make something easy to understand. The point is not that it be ‘correct’ necessarily (there are arguments for formal-and-standard writing being necessary for government and academic writing for various reasons; I think some of them have merit and some of them don’t, but I’m not going into them here because this post would immediately quadruple in length). 99% of the time, I think it’s just important that it’s generally consistent with what people come across in everyday life. Especially when writing dialogue – grammar rules go further out the window in dialogue than in the narrative body, in my opinion.
The other reason that I generally try to keep my writing fairly standard, though, is that it gives me a jumping-off point. I tend to believe that people have a writing ‘threshold’, based entirely on personal and anecdotal opinions. Some writing is generally labelled ‘fluff’ and some of it is labelled ‘hard’ – some people prefer not to read things that are labelled ‘fluff’, and some prefer not to read ‘hard’, and some prefer to decide which they read based on what they’re feeling at a particular time. Everyone has a different threshold, and bases that decision on different criteria. Ask a group of readers how they feel about transcribed accents, for example.
But if I generally make sure that my sentences aren’t too long, and my spelling and grammar may not always be standard, but they are internally consistent, then I have more leeway elsewhere. Inconsistent spellings/grammar choices and complicated sentences often ‘interrupt’ readers. I risk making them go back and read over things again to get the ‘rhythm’ of a sentence right, or figure out if my “weather/whether” mistake was deliberate or a typo. It raises the amount of effort the reader needs to put in to understand my writing, so when I then do things like adding made-up place names, or if I have to front-load a story with worldbuilding information, or if I choose to do something non-standard with my medium or format, I’m just adding more and more factors that make a reader more likely to turn away from the work because it’s ‘too hard’.
Is that fair? Since when is this industry ever fair?
Should I completely ignore those people, and cater to the people who are going to want to read things that are more ‘hard’, or more ‘experimental’ (I’m having trouble coming up with a non-elitist and non-judgemental way of phrasing that)? Maybe. I could – the question is never could I. The question is do I want to? And I’m not sure then answer to that is yes. I don’t think doing different and experimental things should be the same as difficult to read, even if they often overlap.
I’m not going to say that I don’t make typos and mistakes – every time I read one of these posts I find a lot of things that I would have fixed. Heck, every time I read something I’ve written, I see more typos. Gaiman’s Law and all that. Nothing is ever 100% correct and accurate when it’s finished – or released into the wild, or abandoned, or however you prefer to think of finally releasing written works. And while it’s nice to have something to aim for, it’s not necessary to be that accurate, I think. Consistency is always more important, and besides.
Sometimes, you just gotta break a rule.