Metaphor in support of grammar

In the process of embroiling myself in a discussion about the merits of proper capitalization, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc, I realized a handy metaphor to help illustrate my point. My primary points of argument were/are:

  • It’s not that hard, nor is it time-consuming to be correct.
  • In a communication medium hinged on writing, stripped of the nuance of tone and body language, it pays to be as precise and clear in one’s writing as possible. You have no idea what experience another person is having in relation to your words– help them as much as possible
  • If someone does not care enough for the thoughts they’re expressing to ensure their clarity, then why would I waste my time trying to parse their semi-coherent rambling? (Note: thankfully, most people on the forums I visit are highly lucid in their writings. This is something of hyperbole to illustrate a point.)
  • Further, one’s writing is frequently the only exposure others have to you. Clear, thoughtful typing can bring equal gravitas to the opinions of a 14-year-old in an anonymous conversation as those of adults, while a 35-year-old typing irregularly will have him dismissed as a child.

That said, I have tried putting my point in terms of fashion, which is something everyone can relate to.

Horrendous misspellings, run-on sentences, lack of proper spacing… are like leaving your house in pajama pants and a torn, stained, wrinkled sweatshirt. Technically, yes, it’s more comfortable and required less thought and effort [though throwing on a still-casual yet far more presentable pair of jeans and a clean, new tshirt isn’t exactly taxing yet has markedly better results], and yes, it’s getting the job done (i.e. modesty is preserved). However, if you go to a store, restaurant…any place that requires interacting with strangers…, you can bet that the fellow in a tailored suit is going to receive much better service and won’t be followed around the store with suspicions of potential shoplifting.

In this scenario, the clean jeans and tshirt are, say, not ignoring the angry red zigzag under misspelled words and taking the 10 extra seconds to maybe visit Dictionary.com to check that a particular word is both accurate and correctly spelled. Perhaps some appropriate paragraph breaks are included. Honest typos might be an untied shoelace. Modesty equates to technically conveying some kind of message: it’s functional, but maybe not what you intended to show about yourself. The eloquent and well-crafted statement is the tailored suit.

What really makes me love this metaphor is how much nuance it crams in. After all, the scuzzy pajama pants-wearer may have a heart of gold (i.e. a brilliant point to make) and the suit could be scammer or professional shoplifter who knows how to play on people’s prejudices to avoid suspicion (i.e. stylistically accurate concealing misinformation or random whimsy).

As I’ve been applying to jobs these last few months, I’ve noticed that basically every single one includes the same sort of padding– not that those requirements are unimportant, mind, just that they’re fairly universal and seem like they should go without saying. You know, things like “must be able to work well in a team” and “must demonstrate excellent oral and written communication skills.” So much information is conveyed in a written format, be it for hobbies, work, school, or casual chatter: it’s not like this is some arcane skill you only learn about in theory in school and never pick up again (unlike, say, solving quadratic equations for most people– but even those who might regularly use that formula need to communicate).

There is more information around us right at our fingertips than ever before! Exabytes of it! What’s salient, what’s relevant, what’s important– we don’t know these things, and for many topics, we can’t decide for other people, nor predict what people in the future will find valuable. And to be so flippant about trying to convey all of it– …sigh.

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Related post: “It’s only the Internet”, where I’ve touched on this (to me, very frustrating) problem before

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