Monday, November 17, 2008

Write it Right or Yes, Virginia, Mechanics Count

When I was a child, I couldn't spell. I'm still spelling impaired and love spell check above any of the other features of my word processing program. I am, however, glad I have a good background in punctuation, because word processors are woefully inadequate there. Rule of thumb, if Word corrects your punctuation, it is probably wrong. Second rule of thumb: If you rely on Word to correct your punctuation, you need a lot of help.

I can remember saying to my mother, "But they know what I mean! Why is it wrong?" Because it is, genius. It simply is. There are rules and conventions in spelling and punctuation that we have come to expect. When they aren't there, they interfere with the message we are trying to convey. I don't remember my mother's exact words, but that is the essence of what she told me.

As a high school A.P. English teacher, I got a lot of that same attitude. My students could not see the importance of spelling, neatness and punctuation until their essays came back covered in so much red ink they looked like they'd been slaughtered by Attila the Hun. I couldn't seem to stress enough, mechanics matter!

Spelling is one of the most ignored conventions in writing. Of course, with the onset of massive text messaging, we ignore spelling completely and go to how it sounds. Abbreviations, typing it in quickly, getting the message to the other party fast - all this becomes more important than saying it right. If you send me a text message, I'm likely to send back the reply "???" Sorry, I don't speak gibberish. Look it up. is free.

The second most ignored convention is comma placement. Commas crop up in all the wrong places, but get left out of all the spots they belong in. Certain commas are expected. When using direct address, use a comma. "Brad, look at that!" Or "Look at that, Brad!" The comma is there to let the reader know that the comment is addressed to Brad. The speaker is not saying "Look at that brad." He or she wants Brad to look at something.

Another anticipated and neglected comma is the one used to separate items in a list. "The big, black, ugly, smelly, dirty, nasty dog ran over and jumped on me." While on occasion, one may dispense with commas to separate, it's not considered a good idea. If the list is very long, as in the sample sentence, the commas have to be there. They just have to, that's why!

Commas before the word 'and', can be debated until the cows come home. Many will tell you that comma is a must. Others will tell you that it's completely unnecessary and redundant. Choose a method, side with one team or the other and be consistent.

I realize that sometimes the creative juices flow and the urge to get something down now is very compelling. We all go through manic writing phases . We hammer away at the keys and stay up half the night to get the story down. I understand this well. However, putting aside mechanics for speed is not a good idea. Figuring that you can go back later and neaten it up is fine in theory, but not in practice. It is impossible to read through and get all the errors on your own. Sometimes you can bribe a friend or two to look over something you've written. I guarantee if it's too terrible, they will get tired of it and quit. So, pay attention to the mechanics as you go. It makes less of a mess later and won't take so long to neaten up. Finishing isn't as important as getting it right as you go.

What's the point of this article? Am I trying to make people feel bad or insult their intelligence?
No. I am pointing out that each error we make as writers damages our credibility. Make your work as easy to comprehend as possible. Don't interfere with your message by carelessness.

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