Is Sloppy Writing a Sign of Sloppy Thinking?


I’m going to rant a little this week, so forgive me in advance.

The printed schedule for Bangor’s Community Connector service has been improved and updated, as part of an ongoing effort to make the service more accessible to new riders. It now comes folded like a street map and slips easily into an inside jacket pocket. New sections on cell phone courtesy, ticket purchase sites, and discounts for students and senior citizens have been added. The schedule and fare information has been updated as of September 2015; the date is emblazoned on the cover.

I was admiring all this until I got to the Frequently Asked Questions, and read the following:

“When does the bus have it’s last ride between the Bangor Mall and the University of Maine?” Note the extraneous apostrophe.

This question is aimed at University students. I teach at the University of Maine, in the English department. I presume the person who wrote the copy for the bus flyer has a college degree, though I can’t be sure of that. But any educated person ought to know the difference between it’s, the contraction, and its, the possessive pronoun.

I’d let it go as an isolated instance of carelessness, if I didn’t see this and other grammatical atrocities all the time. On a sign at the Bangor Waterfront: “Kayak’s and Canoe’s Only.” In a concert announcement: “Come hear the band and I perform new tunes.” And endlessly on blogs and news sites: “Your wrong, you hippocrate!”

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s one reason I show my words to my lovely live-in ombudsman before I publish them. Still, some errors can creep through. Nobody’s perfect. And I’m not judging whoever wrote the bus guide by one misapplied piece of punctuation.

But what rankles me is the attitude you’ll likely get when you gently point these things out. You will be accused of being petty, small, and mean. The perception that grammar, spelling and punctuation don’t really matter has pervaded on-line media, print publications, and even high schools and colleges, where a prevailing sentiment seems to be: “Oh, they’ll get it right eventually.”

I wonder when: before or after they’ve foisted their ignorance on the bus passengers of Bangor, many of whom are college students? Graduates with similarly poor skills are being unleashed on workplaces every year, spattering professional publications and websites with amateur grammatical errors.

“So what?” you might be thinking. “It’s just an apostrophe.”

Yeah, but here’s the thing. Good writing is the result of good thinking. To write clearly, you must think clearly. You must know what you are writing about. You must pay attention to detail, not only in your subject matter, but also in the words you choose and the ways you use them.

When I read a magazine, a book, a flyer, or a bus schedule, the publication loses a little bit of credibility with every language error. The same goes for comments on blogs and other on-line forums.

And yet people get pissed when you correct them. As a frustrated friend confided to me recently about a co-worker: “She thinks it’s MY fault that SHE can’t spell.”

I’m not a purist. Language changes through usage. I’ve made reluctant peace, for example, with the “everybody… they” construction, as in “Everybody thinks they can write,” even though it technically violates pronoun-antecedent agreement, because it’s preferable to the sexist use of the singular male pronoun. But there’s no excuse for willful ignorance. Ask a college student these days what pronoun-antecedent agreement is, and you’ll likely get a blank stare in response.

There are only three reasons for bad grammar: the writer doesn’t know, doesn’t pay attention, or doesn’t think language is important. A piece of poor writing indicates either lack of education, laziness, or willful indifference to the craft. I can sympathize with the first and understand the second, but I find the third reason inexcusable.

You don’t hear mathematicians defend poor arithmetic. You do see them using calculators. If you use the written word to communicate, you should reach for a dictionary or style guide just as readily. Otherwise, you risk looking like an idiot.

Misspellings, misplaced punctuation, and mangled grammar point to muddled thinking. Clarity of expression cannot take place without clarity of thought. Even though the frenetic pace of modern communication has put a premium on speed at the expense of clarity, “think before you write” is seldom bad advice, and “think before you publish” never is.


Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.