Write Good, Yo

Listening to former SNL comedian, now United States Senate comedian, Al Franken read his book, it became clear that any mistake, any misunderstood joke, could end up splashed across social media as if he were just a total, idiotic, screw-up. Some people are in the public eye, and they can’t afford to court malevolent scrutiny.

Trump was that sort of person, whose every move, from dotting eyes to twitting covfefe, would cause howls of outrage. At the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo cried, “leave Trump alone!”

As protesters across the country marched in opposition to neo-Nazis this month, President Trump did something truly shocking on Twitter: He issued a level-headed statement praising the marchers.

“Our great country has been divided for decades,” he wrote on Aug. 19. “Sometimes you need protest in order to heal, & we will heal, & be stronger than ever before!”

But Mr. Trump’s belated attempt at statesmanship was overshadowed by what, for him, has become a frequent problem: He had flubbed his spelling. In some earlier versions of his olive-branch tweet, he had rendered “decades” as “decade” and “heal” as “heel.” The misspellings were up for only minutes before he deleted and corrected his tweets, but he was roundly mocked on Twitter.

While the rest of us were ridiculing the president for his bad spelling, Manjoo wanted us to chill out.

To which I say this: Lett Trrump bee.

There are lots of reasons to criticize Mr. Trump’s policies, conduct and statements, especially his tweets. But we should lay off his spelling.

He goes on from there to give us all a pass on spelling, word choice, all the stuff with which we struggle to distinguish ourselves from uneducated ignoramuses. But he doesn’t stop with Trump, and says we should all stop being spelling and grammar pedants when it comes to social media.

Being the king of typos, both here and on twitter, I can appreciate his point. It’s quick and dirty, and mistakes happen. And, for crying out loud, it’s not a brief, or even a love note to a judge. Those get severely vetted for typos. This blawg? Have you ever read it before my editor cleans up my trainwreck?

But at National Review, Philip DeVoe rips Manjoo a new one.

Farhad Manjoo urged Twitter users to let up on President Trump’s poor spelling in tweets, arguing that caring about spelling or grammar is “elitist,” and that linguistic propriety was unnecessary on Twitter because the platform’s brevity and immediacy make mistakes inevitable. There are a number of problems with this argument, but the most concerning is its subtle endorsement of the woefully misguided idea that the insistence on proper English is oppressive.

Twitter isn’t a doctoral thesis, so is it fair to turn Manjoo’s social media stance into a general endorsement of misspelling, poor grammar, Trumpian word choice? Somewhat, as poor writing skills are a huge communications problem. Once they’re given a pass on one medium, there is a strong chance they will filter through to others, to everything. Manjoo argues this isn’t a problem because academics say so. DeVoe says “meh.”

Manjoo arrived at the conclusion that spelling is not important after studying intelligence, interviewing an Oxford University professor, and discovering what he calls “a rich history of political misspelling.” He claims to have observed “shifting cultural attitudes” that relieve English speakers of the burden of following the rules of their language. But no matter how many Oxford professors, presidents, or intelligence studies Manjoo cites, “covfefe” still isn’t a word. Inherent in language — and especially spelling — is the need for standards.

Are rules of writing, spelling, grammar, no longer necessary in the age of spellcheck and twitter? Will people be able to distinguish between times and places where they need to get it right from those where informality, and hence sloppiness, are fine? If they can get away with poor writing most of the time, will it not ultimately be the norm in all writing?

While Manjoo’s point is well taken on social media, where you shouldn’t get points off for spelling, DeVoe’s point is similarly serious. That “covfefe” still isn’t a word doesn’t address the problem of people who interchangeably use “your” and “you’re,” Make a mistake? Fine, as long as you realize that you’ve made a mistake and, more importantly, care that you were wrong.

That seems to be the line that distinguishes the two sides, whether a writer cares that he’s misspelled a word. I cringe every time I see a typo in a twit, which is pretty much every time I twit. And while I’m cavalier with typos here, it’s only because I know someone will come along to clean up my mess. It may not look this way, but I care very much. I just can’t bear to read my own posts such that I can clean up my own mess.

If people can distinguish between the informality of social media and formal writing, care that they still need to know how to write well, properly, because their future success depends to some extent on how they present themselves in writing to others who will judge them, then it’s okay. It may not be optimal, but it won’t be the end of thought.

And if we end up writing poorly, sloppily, because social media writing (or spellcheck reliance) has left us satisfied with whatever we produce, no matter how bad, then we will lose the capacity to communicate and, as DeVoe notes, it will impact the “oppressed” more than others. The Elites will be trained to write well, even if the substance is crap, but the inability to write intelligibly will taint the poorly educated and impair their ability to improve their lot in life.

Maybe they’ll have a ton of twitter followers with their cute, if misspelled, twits, but until people get paid based on the number of followers, it remains necessary to possess the skills to function and succeed in real life. The ability to write properly still matters. Don’t lose it.

40 thoughts on “Write Good, Yo

  1. Billy Bob

    And then there are people who deliberately misspell words. My favorite creation on this blawg is “constituition”, as in Constituitional Rights. (No justice available to those who have failed to pay their tuition!) In other words, you have to be somewhat cognizant of the rules before you get to break them with impunity.

    Which reminds me: One of most enlightening concepts I’ve learned hear over the years is, “No rights without a remedy.” Simple, precise, and profound; easy to remember. I remember when you misspelled Stanford as Stamford. You were corrected by the readership pretty quickly. Correcting other people’s mistakes is fun for the feeble minded.
    What happened to CAPCHA? Bring it back!?!

    1. SHG Post author

      Having severe captcha problems following an update to the plugin. It was working great, so they fixed it, which caused it to fail. So they fixed it again, which crashed every site using it. Now they want us to trust them that the next fix will be really, really cool. So I disabled it for now.

  2. Richard Kopf

    Scott,

    Writing is hard. Twitter is bad.

    As for typos, please put a capital “C” anytime I use the word “confederate” or some variation of that word in my next post. Writing is hard.

    Editors are good. Thanks, Yo.

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. SHG Post author

      You are a fastidious writer judge, but a second pair of eyes always sees the erroneous lowercase “c.” Editors are wonderful and underappreciated by readers. Mine save me from looking unduly stupid.

  3. Mike G.

    It’s hard to read one’s own writing and catch all the mistakes, grammatical or otherwise. I can read something I wrote five times and still miss the simplest error until after I hit the post button. Then it stares me right in the face mocking me.

    But I’ve also noticed that even people who have editors and layers of proofreaders still have simple spelling errors and grammatical mistakes in their writing.

    1. Scott Jacobs

      Just so you know, one of the best tricks to fix this problem (which is mostly caused by you knowing what you meant to write) is to walk away for a bit. Read something for fun, like a chapter or two of a book. Do something completely unconnected to what you wrote. Then come back and proof read your work. you will catch like 90% of the errors.

      Or use Word and Grammarly. They really do remarkably well, and their false positives are probably more a case of you refusing to accept a rule it is trying to follow.

      1. SHG Post author

        Lest you believe too much, after something has been put through spellcheck and grammerly, proofed by 27 people, put through the wringer front to back and back to front, finalized and submitted, there will still be a mistake in their, which you will immediately see after it’s too late to fix.

  4. Jake

    The importance of correct spelling and grammar is directly related to the importance of the communication. Unfortunately for our functionally illiterate president of the electoral college every one of his communications, no matter how solipsistic in nature, is now of the utmost importance.

      1. Jake

        Are you saying that to shame Wharton or because you believe where a man went to college is a completely reliable indicator of how good a student he was or how intelligent he is?

        1. Scott Jacobs

          There are some schools where yes, I expect a certain base level of skill. Someone who got into Wharton should have a better grasp of English than someone going to Bumblefuck U in Arkansas.

          Maybe they were a shit student and barely graduated, but the baseline for admission is higher, so we should absolutely expect more.

          1. Jake

            “Maybe they were a shit student and barely graduated, but the baseline for admission is higher, so we should absolutely expect more.”

            I couldn’t agree more, yet here we are in a world where the President of the United States is both a Wharton graduate and functionally illiterate, at the same time. How could this be? It’s almost as if -and stay with me here because I know this is going to be shocking- Rich people can buy their way into the Ivy Leagues.

          1. Jake

            If you have some deeper insight into what Rigelsen is trying to ask me, by all means, lay it on me. As it is, I sincerely don’t know what he’s talking about.

            In the meantime, to avoid being boorish, I’ll only share the delightful congruity of a poorly communicated question in a conversation about poor communication. Especially among a cohort of interlocutors who generally hold such high regard for linguistic purism when, say, transgendered Americans want to be referred to by a new pronoun.

            1. SHG Post author

              There is a difference between doing one’s best to be comprehensible and deliberately trying to murder the language.

  5. Rigelsen

    While I get the point that Manjoo is making as well as the point, if misfired, DeVoe is trying to make, I would make a different observation. When we observe a mistake made by someone we inclined to like, or at least not hate, we will be charitable with them. We will ignore the mistakes, and if we point them out, it will be constructively. However, for many on Twitter, and many in media, are inclined to roundly mock mistakes of people they don’t like, ignoring any substantial point.

    So, DeVoe is being silly. Of course these things are important, but the manner of how you point these out can differentiate a boor from an ethical, productive individual. There is no morality in ignoring the message and attacking the messenger just because we don’t happen to Iike him. We should have a little more charity in us for our own good.

    (I don’t care much for Twitter as it seems to make too many of its writers into Twits. While Trump can be boorish, he is generally far outdone by most of his interlocutors. Of course, one of the differences between someone like Trump and someone like Al Franken is that even when they make equivalent mistakes, the former will be roundly mocked not just on Twitter but on many of our nations premier “news” sites, while the latter error will likely be completely ignored on the latter. I find that useless and stupid.)

    1. SHG Post author

      It could have something to do with Trump being rather unpopular amongst a certain crowd of people, who seem to be rather harsh when it comes to him. On the other hand, he’s not shown himself to be a gracious person either.

  6. losingtrader

    “Will people be able to distinguish between times and places where they need to get it right from those where informality, and hence sloppiness, are fine?”

    Not sure. Don’t have time to respond. Flight at 12 p.m.

  7. maz

    Off-topic, but tangentially related to your point one puts as much effort into proofreading as the content deserves. When I first moved to DC in the early 1980s, I worked as a proofreader for an editorial agency. They offered a range of services based on expertise of the contractors and the type of proofreading to be performed. The gold standard was “two-handed proof,” where one proofreader read the text out loud while a second followed along in a second copy of the text — but the platinum level offering was “two-handed reverse proof,” which was the same as gold level, except the readers went through the text back-to-front in an attempt to short-circuit the brain’s eagerness to autocorrect missing or incorrect words. One of a very few customers for such work was the federal government, which had reasons to worry about dropped words or missing Oxford commas. And if you think the Federal Register is a dull read, try reading it in reverse…

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