Words matter. A lot. Language is the most complex of human achievements, whether in written form or through speech. It allows us to communicate our ideas, emotions, and thoughts.
As you read this, can you begin to imagine the thousands of years of evolution that language has gone through? From the grunting sounds and paintings of our cave-dwelling ancestors, to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, to the ancient Greeks of the 8th century BCE (when vowels became as important as consonants!), to the genius of Shakespeare, to today’s techno-babble (LMAO, LOL, BRB, etc.). The evolution of the shapes of the letters themselves and their sounds – who decided that “S” would be shaped like a snake and sound like “sssss”?!
(Incidentally, this question can be asked of so many things that humans do, like who was the first person to crack open an oyster and say “Hey! This looks like something I want to eat!”?)
Language is a divine gift that humans have; certainly, other creatures in the animal kingdom have ways to communicate, some with a fair amount of complexity (whales, for example), but none to the extent that humans can. It is so important, in fact, that one of the most ancient and revered documents in human history begins by confirming it:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1
This line is one of the most debated biblical passages amongst language and theology scholars, far too complex – and unresolved – to tackle here. But it is interesting to note that the original Greek word for “the Word” is Logos; Aristotle referred to logos as “reasoned discourse”, while Heraclitus meant it as “rational discourse” – very similar. To the Stoics of ancient Greece, it was the “reason” that permeated the Universe. Words, and language, brought order to the chaos that was the world.
Despite how important words and language are, we now treat them with a fair amount of disrespect, especially – as I am concerned with here – when it comes to the written word: we disregard the rules, we take shortcuts, we obfuscate meaning by our blatant lack of vocabular creativity, we fail to take the most fundamental responsibility for the way we express ourselves. We have essentially simplified language to accommodate the “dumbing down” of humans; this is no joke – I used to run a web site for my company and one of the tools we used would rank the relative difficulty of the language style used – it would flag my texts with a red exclamation mark if it was anything over the comprehension of a high school graduate! There are, thankfully, some notable exceptions – the Canadian journalist, Rex Murphy, comes to mind.
(Full and transparent disclosure, here: I am one of those annoying people whom others often refer to as a “grammar nazi”; I can’t help it – when I read a text and there are spelling and grammar mistakes, especially basic, stupid ones, it sounds like fingernails running down a blackboard in my head!)
Nowhere is this lack of respect for the written word more evident than on social media. The amount of posts, tweets, and comments that are nonsensical is astounding! The horrible, inexcusable (in my opinion) spelling and grammar mistakes that abound are absolutely detrimental to the sanity of people who have the most basic appreciation of language; fingernails on a blackboard in Dolby 7.1!
- Your vs. you’re
- To vs. too
- They’re, there, and their (Ugh!)
- “Would of” instead of “would’ve” – contractions! Come on – we learned this in grade THREE!
- Then vs. than
- Its vs. it’s
- …and so many more!
Some people don’t even have the most basic understanding of capitalization, even though it can make a world of difference to the meaning:
“Johnny, go help your Uncle Jack off the horse.”
“Johnny, go help your uncle jack off a horse.”
Quite a difference: one involves helping a relative get off a horse, and the other involves helping a relative with a sexual activity we’d rather not dwell upon (apologies for putting that image in your head). Just two little capital letters!
Punctuation is the most abused, neglected, and forsaken aspect of the written word. Commas, semi-colons, colons, and periods are meant to give rhythm to our words. The French composer, Claude Debussy, said that “Music is the space between the notes”; the pauses that a musician uses between notes (referred to as “rests” in music) are what help highlight the beauty of the phrasings and melodies. Why not use them properly when we write? Do we want our written word to sound like a symphony, or a cheap pop song?
There are great examples that come up frequently when discussing punctuation, such as the comma:
“Let’s eat, Grandma!” or “Let’s eat Grandma!”
Do we truly have cannibalistic intentions of consuming a grandparent?
What kind of impact can the lowly comma make? In the case of a small dairy company in Maine, it had a $5M USD impact! In 2017, the company was taken to court by its drivers, who argued that they should be paid overtime.
Well, before getting into the details, it’s important to understand what’s called the Oxford comma. This is when you use a comma before the last item in a list, normally before the words “and” or “or”. In North America, we are generally not taught to use it, but in many cases, it can cause a certain lack of clarity. For example, if I say “I love my parents, Meryl Streep, and Sean Connery”, it is evident that I am talking about three separate entities; that is with the Oxford comma (the one after Meryl Streep). Without it, it becomes “I love my parents, Meryl Streep and Sean Connery”, implying that my parents are Meryl Streep and Sean Connery; this is how most people would punctuate, at least in North America (except for grammar nerds, of course, who understand the value of the Oxford comma!).
Now, back to the Maine ruling. The state law about overtime in their industry stated that overtime pay did not need to be paid for the following activities:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
The drivers argued that they distribute the goods, but do not pack them; since there is no comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution”, it made packing (for shipment or distribution) look like one activity, whereas simply “distribution” alone is not mentioned. The courts awarded the drivers their overtime pay.
and then there are those who use neither capitalization nor punctuation they just ramble on and on incessantly without any regard for any rules at all and that really hurts your head because there are just no pauses and you’re trying to make sense of what they’re saying it’s like the literary version of flight of the bumblebee by rimsky-korsakov and you wonder if it’s ever going to stop and where it’s going oh please make it stop!
If you’ve made it this far into this essay, you may be wondering, “So? Who really cares?” Well, when it comes to a person’s sartorial style, it can be argued that “the clothes do not make the man” (or woman); however, the way one dresses inevitably communicates something about them. Generally speaking, a man wearing a well-fitted suit typically communicates a certain sense of competence, power, and confidence; sneakers, jeans, t-shirt, and a ball cap – not so much.
The same can be said for one’s written word. Poorly constructed, faulty, and disorganized text makes one look inarticulate, uneducated, and puerile. You know…dumb. This is especially entertaining when reading posts and comments on social media or news sites, where people love to spew their semiliterate verbiage from their proverbial soapbox, only to come across sounding like complete, uneducated cretins. Whereas, on the other hand, a well-written post or comment implies thought, reflection, and a heightened sense of credibility.
One should strive, therefore, to be as clear, concise, and articulate as possible when writing. Language is a divine gift, and the written word is the sheet music to the symphony that it can – and should – be.