It’s not its

I am constantly saddened by the poor standards of writing in general.

On the one hand, I know that this is nothing new, as there will always be people who can’t write correctly, lots of them, to varying degrees. That is not a judgment; it is just a fact. Is it getting worse? I don’t know. With the online world we live in today, it is far more visible – but not necessarily worse – than it would have been before. My hope is that all this writing activity might, just might, over time, improve standards.

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel irritated when I come across poor writing from competent people. Honest mistakes happen – everyone does them – but it is easy to spot when mistakes come from laxity rather than the occasional moments of inattention. My belief is that you should never do any less than what you’re capable of (and always try to improve – but that would be a topic for another day).

No excuse – What irritates me most, however, is poor professional writing. By professional writing, I mean any writing which is published or displayed publicly; any writing that anyone could read, or that a specific audience could read, or that is meant just for you by a person or organisation with whom you have a non-personal relationship. In fact, professional writing is any writing that is not personal in nature: a teacher’s letter to parents, a notification email by the office manager to staff, an article in a newspaper, an information sign in a store aisle, instructions on how to assemble furniture, directions on a bottle of medicine, a pub menu, a post in a software bug tracking system, a plaque on a monument or memorial park bench, a newsletter from a club, an article’s description on a website, source code comments, a road sign, a message in a shop window, a label on a website’s button, the helptext for that button, this blog article, a promotion email, a twit to your followers, publishing in any form… the list is endless.

In these cases, there is no excuse for poor writing. As a matter of course, organisations have, or should have, copyediting and proofreading in place. Publishing houses have professionals for that, but even the smallest of organisation can do reviews and corrections, even if that is an informal position for the office boy who is a wiz with words, or if that involves asking a friend to help. There is no excuse for a poor banner or sign: how many eyes does it pass in front of before it is put up, and still no-one spots the mistakes? The CEO of a company, writing his weekly newsletter, may be too harried to bother with a letter-perfect blurb, but would make sure that his secretary goes over it to polish it. Indeed, an author with high standards is not necessarily one who makes few mistakes, but one who knows his limitations, and who will ensure that his text is reviewed and corrected.

One very disappointing example of poor professional writing is the one coming from schools – places of education and knowledge by definition. The irony is hard to miss when you hear a headmaster or teacher stress the importance of good communication skills and the clear correlation between these skills and achievements in life, and notices on the wall contain grammatical howlers, and the letters you receive are in poor English.

Do it right – You (or your organisation) should make sure that only the best is good enough, because you have a duty of care. You write for somebody. You write to inform, warn, explain, communicate. It is your job, your responsibility, your duty to your reader or readers (whatever their relationship to you) to do it well. After all, you are writing to be read. If you don’t take that seriously, then it is not worth doing in the first place.

I have heard people say “why should I care about [the numerous grammatical, punctuation, and spelling mistakes you’ve just pointed out]? They [the hapless readers] will know what I mean!” Maybe they will (although there is still a greater risk of misunderstanding than otherwise), but you’ll look unprofessional and you’ll make their job (reading) harder and probably unpleasant; that’s never a good thing.

I have also heard, “they [the readers] won’t care about all the mistakes, it’s the message that’s important“. Well, let’s examine that, disregarding the other qualities that bad writing can have, like being confusing, misleading, or having a different meaning than the one intended. To generalise, your readers will be made of two types of people: the ones who care, and the ones who don’t care (or can’t tell the difference). The ones who don’t care – you are right – won’t care. The ones who care won’t like it. Now, let’s say that you do a good job. The readers who don’t care still won’t care. The readers who do care will be happy. Net win if you do a good job. Whichever way you look at it, badly writing a message only makes it worse – never better. Bad writing will provoke reactions (e.g. irritation, puzzlement) that will also distract from the actual message, which is the opposite of the desired effect. Can you imagine a funeral invitation such as “Your invited to bobs funeral. well celebrite his life“?
Of course, if you still don’t care, then nothing I say here will change your mind, but if so, then please don’t use that excuse – it’s nonsense.

And if duty of care really doesn’t sway you, then think of how you are perceived, of the professionalism (or lack of) that you project, of the effect on your customers.

As for a specific example, what is it with people and apostrophes? A lot of people don’t use them at all. Carelessness? Sheer incompetence? Fear to get them wrong? Some people seem to scatter them randomly, maybe hoping that a few will land correctly. Some often write most possessives without apostrophes, and tag “‘s” to most nouns to make plurals (and not consistently either, which implies that it’s not even logically done). Of course, the fact that for so long teaching English was not actually in the curriculum is not helping those who would like to get it right. The worst and most typical abuse is “its“…
No, “it’s” is not written “its” (and vice-versa, although that occurs less often).

A lot of bad writing occurs because people write phonetically; they just write as if they were speaking, using whatever words fit the sounds. Unfortunately, you can’t just do that; written English is in practice a different language than spoken English. If I just say “my friends coats” (ignore the writing for now) in a conversation, you would have to determine from the context what it is that I am talking about. However, I can write “my friend’s coats” (my friend has many coats), “my friends’ coats” (my friends and their coats), or even “My Friends coats” (coats from the just-launched ‘My Friends’ brand of clothing), all with different explicit meanings.

In a TK Maxx in town, there is “kids, shoes, accessories” all over its windows. Does it mean they are selling kids? Hmm, no; just next to that, there is “mens, womens“… An 8-year old would know better :-(.

We have a church of St Andrew here. There is a sign on it with “St Andrew’s Church“. Not far away is “St Andrews Day Nursery“. Next door is a club, with “St Andrew’s Men’s Club” above the door but “St Andrews Men’s Club” on a banner outside. The road sign says “St Andrews Road“, of course. Sigh…

It’s everywhere: “im“, “ive“, “dont“, and “whats” (apostrophe allergy), “manufacturers warranty“, “1 days notice“, “The Worlds End” (yes they do), “families holiday” (for “family’s holiday”), “mens“, “womens“, “childrens” (double plurals?). What is it, is your keyboard missing a key?

And of course you have these homophones differing only by an apostrophe, like “its” (already mentioned), “lets“, “wont“, “cant“, “well“, “were“. Yes, these mean something different; that’s the way it is.

And no, more than one photo is not “photo’s“. I suppose you would describe its frame as “the photos frame was lovely” then? One pub I went to recently had its menu written without a single apostrophe when it needed about a baken’s dozen of them. On the blackboard however, it was “ice cream’s” and “pudding’s” galore. Nice food though :-).

Apostrophes really are simple, there is one rule to bind them all.

As for other homophones, in particular grammatical ones, my favourite is “your” (“your so funny!“…hmm). “Its” and “your” make me shudder. Other famously misused ones are “their/there” (for “they’re”), “of” (for “have”), “who’s” (for “whose”). Furthermore I’m sorry, but “2” for “to” and “4” for “for” have been used to death – give them a rest.

Some people can’t even copy some text without making mistakes: I have never seen a “Kings Road” turn magically into “King’s Road”, but I have often seen a “King’s College” turn into “Kings College” (where’s that damn key again?). The reason for that is probably the same as for incorrect writing in the first place: writing phonetically – never mind what was written in front of your eyes in the first place.

Finally, if you think that this is a problem just with English, fear not; it’s just as bad, and sometimes far worse, in other languages. French is not easy, I know, and I have seen some truly awful written French. The sad thing is that English grammar is so simple in comparison. Oh well, I guess you need perspective to be able to realise that.

And don’t get me started on punctuation…

About Philippe Lasnier

A French- and British-educated professional software engineer with over 33 years of broad experience and a solid history of developing high-quality software for large and small companies across a range of applications and different industries; particularly experienced in C, C++; the development of middleware, internal components, core code, and APIs; solo, in a team, or as lead of small teams. Recognised for high-quality development, great attention to detail, keen analytic and investigative skills. Bilingual, English and French, just in case you were wondering. Philippe currently works for Spirent Communications, but in any case, the opinions here are his own.
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