Of all the topics that should ring old and stodgy in our Web 2.0 age, grammar would seem to top the list. Schools have stopped teaching it. Authors have stopped using it. Cellphones flatly discourage it. What a strange thing it is, then, that few issues are as hotly debated online as the significance of grammatical guidelines in the digital world. Rigorous debate flows from blog posts that advocate capitalization in E-mail sentences or entries that defend typos as a natural outcome of modern, discursive thinking. But the online disputes ultimately answer their own question: Grammar matters more than ever because we communicate by written word more than ever now, and the viability of online discourse depends on the clarity of our messages. This is not your kindergarten teacher talking. In a recent AOL survey, 68 percent of respondents said E-mails with spelling and punctuation errors annoyed them.
Here are some guidelines for your E-mails and blog entries:
Word misuse: Last month, in the New York Times Book Review, critic Katie Hafner took author Sarah Lacy to task for her use of the word rearchitect. Lacy's writing was "at best, informal," Hafner sniffed. But marketing whiz and blogger Seth Godin crafted a whole post recently on his appreciation for the use of the word architect as a verb.
Misusing words really grinds some people's gears—editors often get steamed when impact is used as a verb—and architect is no different. "That drives architects crazy," says Patricia O'Conner, coauthor of You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online and the Grammarphobia blog. "I get a lot of mail about that."
The Internet has encouraged jargon to spread more rapidly than ever before—even prompting further linguistic manipulation as past jargon becomes trendy, then overused and, ultimately, retired. "Dictionaries may or may not have caught up with the usage. I don't know; does that make it OK?" O'Conner asks. "What really makes something OK," she says, is how well the language conveys the "idea that a person wants to get across." One major problem with trendy language is that the definition may eventually change fashion, and the E-mail or blog entry will be archived and read later in a different context.
Capitalization. Proper E-mail etiquette is not just about image, as is most often suggested; it's about communication. Capitalization is an issue of readability, O'Conner says: "I think that people who don't follow those conventions—it's not just that they're being unconventional and trendy—they are diminishing the readability and usefulness of their message." It conveys a tone, as well, that suggests the writer didn't take the time to use proper grammar because the reader wasn't worth it.
Karen Burns, a blogger at Karen Burns, Working Girl and guest blogger for U.S. News, professes in her blog to be a fanatic about grammar. Burns says good communication "means considering your reader's needs first," and E-mails without capital letters create extra work for readers. "They may spend more energy on mentally correcting each uncapitalized word than on reading and understanding your message," Burns says.
Typos. Penelope Trunk is a sufficiently successful blogger (read: she makes enough money) that she has an editor look over her entries. Even so, mistakes happen. In April, Trunk announced, in the title of a blog entry, that "writing without typos is totally outdated." Trunk argues that a blog writer's limited amount of time is better spent on generating new ideas than fixing comma splices.
Not surprisingly, O'Conner disagrees. She finds the idea a bit "depressing." When a blog isn't carefully edited for typos, it suggests that the content is meant only to be quickly scanned and disposed of—rather than carefully considered, archived, and reread. Blog writers owe it to their readers, and themselves, to ensure that their words last.
Spelling. Misspelled words will kill your blog's usefulness in a search, O'Conner says. Spell "globalization" wrong, and readers will never find your entry on the upside of outsourcing.
Fixing grammatical mistakes and typos or correcting the spelling of words used to be difficult, but computers have made it incredibly simple. Any blogger who's interested in creating something of "perpetual value" needs to treat misspelled words and typos with an equally unflinching red pen, O'Conner says.
There's no great secret solution. Many bloggers don't have access to editors or grammar-minded friends, so all they can do is reread. E-mails are almost never edited, so writers should abide by the same principle. Take the extra seconds to reread your words. Your recipient will certainly appreciate it.