This is me:
- I spent the majority of my time in grade school finishing my regular work as quickly as possible so I could get to what I really loved doing: reading and writing plays and stories.
- I took the grammar and composition course in high school FOR FUN!
- I resurrected the literary magazine because I was sure my fellow students were as obsessed as I was with wanting to write beautiful prose.
- I aced my honors creative writing course in college, and I especially loved it because there were only eight students in the class and I, therefore, got more attention from the instructor.
For me, powerful written communication must include correct punctuation and grammar. It's the only way to clearly say what you want to say. It's your job as the writer to craft words into sentences that clearly and accurately convey your ideas. Grammar is the method by which you string words together coherently to make sentences and paragraphs. Punctuation gives the readers clues as to your true meaning. Failing to utilize even the most rudimentary grammar and punctuation skills means you expect your reader to somehow glean your meaning through a form of telepathy. It's a risky business; most of the people I know, including myself, are terrible telepaths.
I would never critique anyone's grammar or punctuation in a casual email, text, or social media post. But the sloppiness becomes an issue when the mistakes are repeated over and over and morph into bad habits. When I was on Facebook, I noticed punctuation trends sweeping across the digital landscape. For instance, I watched with horror as people quickly became convinced that apostrophes are to be used to make words plural. Now I see it everywhere in real life, and it makes me shudder every time. And don't get me started on the horrific (but often unintentionally hilarious) misuse of quotation marks. Or the way more and more people slap a comma into a sentence when they feel it's where the reader would take a breath to emphasize the next few words. That's not how commas were raised.
I have a friend who is a successful businessman. He's smart, savvy, and a good guy. One day, he proudly posted an image of his new business cards on a social media account. I immediately noticed a common spelling error and privately messaged him about it, concerned that his reputation for excellence would suffer from such an obvious mistake. He messaged me back and told me that he'd ordered a gazillion cards and didn't want to order new ones. He said the error would be our little secret. I didn't say anything about it after that--it's his business, after all--but I guarantee it won't be our little secret. Someone is going to notice, and they won't be impressed, and he might lose business because of it. I know I regularly quit reading articles by professionals when I realize they couldn't be bothered to re-read their text or get an editor to do it for them. It just tells me the author is sloppy and doesn't pay attention to details. Why should I listen to someone who is supposed to be imparting valuable information but can't be bothered to make sure they're doing it as clearly as possible? If a 500-word article is so poorly written, I would never buy one of their books or subscribe to one of their newsletters. Sloppy professional writing makes me crazy: I can't stop mentally editing, and then I completely miss the point they're trying (poorly) to make.
I think that the joy of cleaning up poor writing and allowing the author to express his/her ideas in the clearest, most coherent way possible is why I love to be an editor. There's a real thrill in helping someone communicate valuable information in the best way possible. I'm a total nerd that way. But I also understand how hard it is to write. How many of my blog drafts sit, languishing in their digital limbo, because I became disgusted with my lack of ability to write the way I want to? Answer: most of them. Even now I'm tempted to erase this entire post. It's like an itch you can't quite ignore.
So why do grammar and punctuation matter? They matter because the written word is one of the most powerful ways through which we communicate with other human beings. These rules aren't arbitrary, even if they change a little over time, and they are tools in making that communication as clear and understandable as possible. They aren't difficult to learn, but I suppose that if fewer and fewer people know them, it won't matter so much if they're used at all. But then we regress in our ability to communicate. That's what makes me sad.
A note: I do want to point out that different people write differently. Husband was reading this over, and he mentioned several places where he would have created two sentences out of one or added slightly different punctuation. He would have been correct in how he changed it, as well. I acknowledge that there are different styles of writing. But you have to know the rules before you can play with them, as any good cook or actor or athlete knows.