A lot of people, especially “kids these days,” will tell you that spelling and grammar aren’t important or useful in today’s world. Like, srsly, doesn’t ur word program totes do all that 4 u?
Do word processing programs contain useful features that can catch the odd typo or grammatical error? Of course they do. Those features have caught many an error in my own work. But they are not, and may never be, able to actually discern meaning or context. Spell-check cannot flag the wrong form of too, two, or to. It cannot know you meant “interpreter” when you typed “interrupter.” Grammar-check isn’t always fool-proof, either. It’ll flag one-word responses to questions and call them fragments, and it is nowhere near nuanced enough to recognize a writer’s personal style.
Think about this: the spelling and grammar-check features in whatever program you’re using are the precursors to the autocorrect feature on your smartphone. Is autocorrect useful? Occasionally. Is it always correct? Heck, no! There are entire websites dedicated to its massive and hilarious failings. My phone does idiotic things like correct drip to drop, on to in, does to dies. It once corrected some now-forgotten word beginning with B to “Beyonce.” I can honestly tell you I’ve never typed that woman’s name until just now. Where did she come from? The other weird thing is that autocorrect LEARNS FROM YOU, not the other way around. So the more errors you consistently make, the less it tries to correct them. Congratulations, humans! You’ve managed to invent programs that are so smart they can learn to be dumb!
Now, I am not calling people who use slang or who spell poorly stupid. I’m honestly not. I use plenty of slang (mostly of the “swear word” variety) and I know plenty of intelligent people who won’t be winning any spelling contests. I very much believe that spelling can be taught, but only to a degree. I think you have an innate sense of it, or you don’t, and I believe the same thing about grammar. If you don’t happen to possess that innate sense, you’ll have to work harder to make up the difference, and your disadvantage doesn’t mean you can just ignore the importance of correct spelling or good grammar.
If you’re scrawling a quick note on a post-it, does it matter if your spelling and grammar are perfect? Nope. If you’re tweeting something at Chris Evans, desperately hoping he’ll respond, does it matter? Only Captain America can tell you what level of Grammar Nazi he is. I recognize that there are times when perfection is not the goal or even on the radar, and I recognize that perfect spelling and grammar don’t necessarily lead to the most desirable result. The importance of it can be judged by the project and the goal you’re trying to achieve.
Are you writing a college entrance essay? Spelling and grammar skills may make or break your chances for acceptance, and will certainly affect your placement in some courses. Are you writing a cover letter for a job application? This could be another make-or-break, but chances are, if the business wants a cover letter, they’re using it to judge your ability to communicate clearly and effectively.
Are you writing an email, hoping to persuade another person with your sound reasoning and presentation of facts or figures? If so, an error here could mean utter failure. When I read other people’s writing I am looking for errors, and if there are easily-spotted spelling mistakes or words used inappropriately, I will discount the validity of what you have written. And guess what? I’m not the only one! That’s just how the world works. If you can’t proofread your work or have someone else do it for you, then people may assume you haven’t put much work into what’s behind your words. I, and all of us who use our critical thinking skills to determine the legitimacy of what we read, may turn out to be wrong, but nobody has a lot of time to waste. (Got a lot of cat videos to get to, amiright?) As people, we judge everything we see, hear, or read every day to determine how to categorize it. It’s true or it’s false, or it’s somewhere in between. What can we use to judge these things? Here’s a hint: it shouldn’t be whether we simply want it to be true or false. And the first step, at least for me, is the author’s grasp of English spelling and grammar.
(Psst! You know what? It’s technically not grammatically correct to start a sentence with and or but. But I do it all the time! It’s part of my personal style. I generally speak the same way. However, if I were submitting this to a professor or teacher, I’d have to eliminate every instance of that in the interest of getting a good grade. I may also change my speech patterns, to some degree, to accommodate my audience.)
I am NOT going down the rabbit hole of bias and critical thought. That’s not what this post is about. I will, however, direct you to a man who is a shining example of writing for a purpose, while occasionally being an example of how not to use a comma.
Get thee to thy Facebook account, if you’re so tragically unhip or so old that you still have one. (Whatever, Instagrammers and SnapChatters. You’ll never take my words from me!) Search for “Bangor Maine Police Department” and go to their page. Here you will find Sergeant Tim Cotton (or "TC"), a man who launched a law enforcement FB page out of obscurity and into international fame.
Sgt. Cotton basically does the opposite of what social media gurus would tell you to do. His posts are often very long. He doesn’t always include a photo or something that will satisfy our modern goldfish-like attention spans. He writes a weekly post called “Got Warrants?” and does interviews with the rookie officers. One day he wrote about his favorite chair. I’m not kidding.
A post about a chair was interesting, sweet, funny, smart, and a little sad. It was also missing a hyphen and had a couple of extra commas…which does not matter in the slightest, though my editing brain sees them and takes note. Ultimately, these errors don’t obliterate his meaning or intent, and that’s part of why they’re okay.
You see, Sgt. Cotton is not writing a dissertation or a report. He is not trying to sell you anything or get a new job. TC’s purpose is to show the citizens of Bangor that his officers are a regular part of the community, just like them. Yes, he might be able to do that just as well if his status updates were grammatically perfect, but then again, maybe he couldn’t. What does come through is his love for Maine, for his fellow man, and for his job. I think TC is, like a man chopping down his livelihood for a bunch of dead baseball players, following the advice only he hears: "Build it and they will come." And so far, it seems to be working. Maybe none of us are more surprised than TC himself.