On the Difference Between Ability and Priority

Miri at Brute Reason has a guest post from CaitieCat, in which she asks us liberal heathens not to harp on spelling and grammar in place of meaning:

Particularly in a US context, where educational options are very strongly influenced by class (and race, in an intertwined manner), riding the xenophobes for misspelling ‘illegals’ as ‘illeagles’, or “Muslim” as “muslin”, what we’re saying is, “You should have been smart enough to get yourself born to the right kind of parents, who’d give you access to the best education, who were educated themselves enough to teach you ‘proper’ English, and who were rich enough to make sure you never had to work after school instead of studying!”

I agree with her position, up to a point. And it’s possibly hypocritical of me to even share her post at all, as I’m given to writing up entire blog posts just to tell people how to use better grammar, but here’s the thing: I’m a writer, and I hang out with other writers. I think writers should know how to spell. I think writers should know their punctuation and conditionals, or be actively trying to improve their skills. And I tend to focus on giving advice on how to do it right, rather than simply declaring, “You don’t know how to spell ‘socialist’, so your argument is invalid,” because I actually do have some awareness that learning the finer points of the English language takes more work for some people than others. I think being able to do things like keep homophones straight and use apostrophes appropriately is an end unto itself, if you’re going to make a habit of writing things which you expect large numbers of people to read.

So that’s where I diverge from CaitieCat’s position: I think writers should have a solid grip on the spelling of whatever language they’re using, and in the examples that I’ve pasted above, we know that these are errors some people make because we’ve seen them on protest signs.

If I were to make a list of situations in which spelling/grammar/punctuation is relatively more important or less important, Facebook comments would be toward the “less important” end and protest signs would be on the “more important side.”

When you make a protest sign, you are communicating in a written medium. You’ve written up a message which you expect lots of other people to see. Now that we have smartphones and social media, you’re assuming your message will be photographed and passed around the Internet, probably with your face visible below the sign.

Fair or not, the way your written message is presented will have some effect on how it’s received. If your protest sign shows up on Facebook with everything spelled correctly, then people will focus on the message itself. If your protest sign shows up on Facebook with misspellings of words like “socialist” or “illegals” or “Muslim” or “morons” or “our,” then people will talk about the lousy spelling on your protest sign. You can complain about the horrible, classist unfairness of us evil pedantic grammarians who think the your/you’re distinction is important, or you can ask your friends to check your spelling before you write it up on a large sheet of cardboard. Surely, there should be at least one person in any circle of nativist bigots who can tell you that “illeagles” is not the word you want on that sign.

It’s not the cognitive ability, or the educational attainment of the sign-holder that I mock. It’s the lack of respect they show for the medium in which they’re communicating.

As long as we’re on the topic of the difficulties of the incredibly non-phonetic English language, I will posit that there is something inherently ridiculous about the prevalence of badly spelled protest signs screeching at immigrants to learn English. If you’re a native speaker who can’t remember the difference between “our” and “are,” then you’re in no position to demand that newcomers to this country learn the language. I mean, I think people who take up residence in the U.S. should be able to communicate in English, if only because it allows them to meet so many more people and do so many more things, but I can’t really blame them for not learning when they’re surrounded by English-speakers who have never spoken anything else and still don’t have a very firm grasp on the language.

If I’m horribly ableist and classist for mocking people who hold up signs like this one, then the people who write those signs are basically commanding: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

2 thoughts on “On the Difference Between Ability and Priority

  1. As a long-time online publisher (since 1997), I have allowed publication of many letters to the editor with misspellings and poor grammar – up to a point. I made the editorial decision to allow such poor writing from correspondents only if it didn’t hurt the message being relayed in that particular medium. Published articles were treated to a higher standard. Crazy guy that I am, I draw the line at 5,000 word tirades in all upper case, with no punctuation, sentence or paragraph breaks. Yes, I received such submissions and was called an elitist and racist for not publishing them.

    There MUST be some minimum standards or communication becomes so difficult that it isn’t worth the effort. I spent six years as an adult literacy instructor in the S.E. quadrant of DC. I’ve seen 66 year old women come back to school to get their GED and witnessed them take it far more seriously than 18 year old high school drop-outs. My older students often had bigger hurdles to surmount in their past such as racial segregation or they were forced to drop-out to help provide for their siblings, while many of the younger students just didn’t care and expected to get a free pass. My sympathy is reserved for those with no options, not for those who don’t care enough to even achieve the bare minimum.

    • That’s something that tends to get lost in all these debates over how much we should care about the finer points of language: it can only deviate so far before it becomes *really difficult to read*. I’d like to be able to focus on message and meaning rather than read tea leaves through keystrokes.

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