I am a self-confessed “word geek” and am accused by my friends of frequent “grammar nazism”. It’s true. I frequently, shamefully, make judgments about people based on a stray comma, poor syntax, a misspelling. When I attempt to defend my pedantry (which is often indefensible) in debates, the same argument is often used: “The important thing is communication. As long as you get your point across does punctuation/spelling/syntax/vocabulary matter that much?” Yes. Yes it does.
The above argument is reductionist. Were communication simple perhaps it might hold water, however, the truth of the matter is that even our everyday interactions are intensely complex, nuanced, and the manner in which we convey a message can dramatically alter how it is perceived. Consider this: you’ve had an argument with your significant other. You are feeling sorry and text to ask if they are okay. You receive the response, “I’m fine”. How do you feel? Relieved? Probably not, but why? Because words do not exist in isolation. Their meaning is derived from context, etymology, precedent and much more besides. As a result of this, both the choice of, and presentation of, the words we use to communicate are absolutely critical.
The more influence someone has, the bigger their audience, the greater the responsibility they have in their use of language. Donald Trump has recently been criticising the “dishonest” media for their coverage of his campaign.
“If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%.” – Donald Trump, 14/08/2016
Let’s examine this. It is very difficult to twist words if they are carefully chosen and unambiguous. The frequent excuse for Trump’s verbal gaffes and the “dishonest” media coverage they fuel is “sarcasm”. (*Since writing this I have seen a segment on “Chelsea” that is very similar and even uses the same dictionary wrote that I use. I did not “pull a Melania”, I clearly just had The same idea.) “The media don’t get sarcasm”. Well, what is sarcasm? Most dictionaries define it as a form of irony or a bitter jibe, however, the Merriam-Webster definition puts it more simply:
“: the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny”
And Donald Trump is surprised that his words get misinterpreted? He is saying the opposite of what he means in the hope that a whole country will recognise it as sarcasm. This is as naive as it is irresponsible. In order to avoid these misinterpretations the solution is simple: say what you mean to say, without ambiguity.
Now, I mentioned spelling and punctuation. Clearly these belong to the domain of the written word. Why do they matter? Any employer who has sifted through a huge pile of CVs and cover letters can probably answer this – quite apart from how they effect the meaning of what is written, they are a yardstick of attention to detail and accuracy. Spelling and punctuation are not just decoration. Even a capital letter can make a huge difference:
“He spoke with great polish”
“He spoke with great Polish”
Missing commas can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence.
Grammar is the mathematics of language and getting it wrong or wilfully flouting the rules can produce anything from a rounding error to completely the wrong answer. In the linked example, the use of a comma had a real-world value of $1,000,000!
I will readily admit the importance of situation in all this. Using obscure, lengthy words can be damaging to communication; telling someone who has just declared their love for you that they did so in a way that was grammatically incorrect is also a dickish thing to do.
So, why should people really care about the language they use? Because, in a world were one can no longer bash someone on the head to establish authority, influence, dominance: language is power. For good or for bad. Would Martin Luther King Jr. have been able to lead the African-American Civil Rights Movement so successfully without being a brilliant orator? Would Hitler have come to power without the power to enthrall the masses with his firebrand speeches? The success of countries, multinational corporations and sports teams (Al Pacino’s speech, “Inches”, in Any Given Sunday, anyone?) has been decided by words: inspirational speeches, branding, accurate explanations of strategy etc. Even a declaration of war is words. Words are currency, words are bullets, words are medicine, words are consolation, words are hope. Every major religion is founded on words, as is every country’s constitution and legal system. So what are we doing when we let or vocabulary shrink, when we reduce our ability to communicate to a basic level? We are limiting ourselves, we are surrendering influence, relinquishing power, diminishing our ability to heal, to unite, to fight.
The choice is ours.