Why The Habit Of Accuracy Matters Whenever You Write

I can't help myself; I often correct the spelling and grammar of others. A common retort is: "Why does it matter if I misspelt that word in a comment/text message/email? You knew what I meant!" The reason it matters is that you are training yourself to do the wrong thing. The sloppier you are in casual communication, the greater the odds that you'll mess up when it actually matters.

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I recognise different modes of communication demand different voices. The way I write a story for Lifehacker is quite distinct from how I express myself on Twitter or in a text message to friends. The vocabulary, tone and structure will all vary. But one key element won't.

In all those contexts, I use capital letters and punctuation correctly, and aim for accurate spelling. I don't say to myself "this doesn't matter". It always matters. To gain the habit of accuracy, you need to aim for accuracy all the time.

Nobody is perfect, and I make mistakes. Everyone does. I write for a living, so I probably make more mistakes than the average person. However, I don't pretend that those mistakes are irrelevant. The people who make errors and then laugh them off, or argue that it's much more appropriate to use nothing but lower-case letters and the wrong version of its/it's when sending an SMS, are making a much bigger mistake. They are establishing the habit of deliberately being indifferent to accuracy.

When they need to write in a more formal context — a job application, a vital work email, a message of condolence — they will struggle badly. If you've long since stopped paying attention to how to use apostrophes in more casual contexts, it's far more likely that you will make a hash of deploying them. If you don't pay any attention to suggested spelling corrections, or use an environment which doesn't offer them, errors will be more common.

In a utopian world, human beings would be able to switch seamlessly from one communicative context to the other and languages would be constructed in an entirely rational fashion. We do not live in such a world. Writing accurately requires effort, both in working out what you want to say and in remembering the weird and often arbitrary rules that apply when it comes to spelling. In that context, practice definitely makes perfect.

You may not be able to change the habits of your spelling-indifferent Facebook friends, but you have control of your own keyboard. The choice is yours. Choose wisely. Accuracy matters.

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


Comments

    If I could give you a handshake, I would. There is no reason with so much auto-correction and dictionary checking keyboards in technology that being lazy is easier than getting a sentence right the first time.
    On a side note, can we get rid of voice typing too?

    We've had at this before Angus (might be nice if I got the name right too) and I think it's being rather boorish of you to think you have a right to correct someone else's spelling. We are not in school and you are not my teacher. Nor did I ask you to correct my grammar. And yes I know that there are more boorish people out there that will tell me I'm taking it too seriously. However, not all of us had the opportunity to get a decent education. Some like me are self taught and others have disabilities. Grammar Nazi's are just that,... people who think it is their responsibility to correct others,.. because we're teaching you how to do it right! Well here's the news, we don't want to be taught.! We are happy as we are...!!

    Last edited 21/01/13 6:13 pm

      Language is public property, particularly when used in public. It's as reasonable to protect language against damage as it is any other public asset (cf. reminding people not to drop litter).

      You question someone's 'right' to correct spelling. Such a right is pretty well entrenched - it's called 'free speech'. Public debate (including about language) is an essential facet of any half-decent modern society. Equally, the person in error can choose to ignore the correction (though it's hard to imagine why any sane person would choose to do so).

        Free Speech is one thing, it's quite another to push your values on others! Since when has it been a right to be a pretentious tool, by telling someone else, politely or not, that they need to correct their Grammar? Or what....? You'll set the Grammar police on me? As I said before, this forum is not a bloody school and we don't come here to be taught Grammar! If you want correct grammar, then get our schools in order. I wasn't able to finish my schooling, do you really think you have a right to "teach" me in a public forum. Mind your manners first, I say!!

          Fortunately, "free speech" implies the right to comment on others' public statements without needing permission. Viz: you might not like it, but there's nothing you can do about it.

          "Manners", by the way, doesn't support your thin-skinned attitude. "Good manners" (a deeply traditional notion) has traditionally implied the attempt to use our common language correctly.

            I don't care if you have the right to be a pretentious tool when it comes to commenting on the ramblings of other peoples comments. Whatever floats yer boat mate! Just try to be a gentleman about it..!

              Gentleman? I'll see if I can dig out my old bowler hat ..

        Please show me where Australians have the right to free speech. Did we become the 51st state?

      "responsibility to correct others... Because"*

      You need to capitalize after a period and also ellipses are 3 periods, not comma period period.

        ... = ellipsis*

          'Ellipses' is the plural form of 'ellipsis', so your attempted correction is unwarranted. Learn the language before you try to teach it.

            unwarrant* lern 2 spel plez

              No, "unwarranted" was correct. Whereas "unwarrant" has been used in the past as an adjective (see http://www.wordnik.com/words/unwarrant), "unwarranted" is a past participle used as an adjective - a far more common occurrence and accepted use.

      Grammar Nazi's are just that

      No apostrophe required.

    I remember in days gone by when the concept of proof reading was common place and you would virtually never read anything that was not perfectly typed and corrected.
    It seems these days that proof reading has gone the way of the Dodo.
    I will quite literally read at least one article with some form of misspelling or grammatical error every single day. Usually its more than one article though.

      it's * pls spel corectley

    Thanks Angus for starting this conversation and then presumably sitting back and having a good larf, yuk bloody yuk. Very nearly 100% of the articles written for LH and GIz have Grammar errors, how about you sort that out before trying to teach others.

    Last edited 22/01/13 9:11 am

    Ignore them Angus, they don't know what they don't know or understand. I support you fully.

      *know NOR understand

        No, "or" was correct in WillD's sentence. Please refer to: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/when-to-use-nor.aspx

    Where it becomes a problem is when someone has written a lengthy article on a complex topic, inviting debate and discussion, and the only thing you have to talk about is a typo.
    It tells the other commenters that you haven't thought about the article beyond the most superficial level, and have nothing to add to the discussion.

      My point exactly, thank you

        You certainly disguised your point well if that's what it was.

    Sloppy thinking leads to sloppy writing. The writing needs to add clarity not confusion.
    Does anyone have any suggestions on some good books for improving sentence and paragraph writing skills?

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