A couple of years back, when I was in college, I read an article that was supposed to give me some ideas about teaching. It was written by an intern, a male teacher-to-be who, as it turned out, had some excellent teaching strategies, backed up with wonderful new educational philosophies. I completely missed the point of this article. It wasn't because I am a bad reader, and it also wasn't because I'm thick-headed. I couldn't understand the article's point because I was too distracted by all the errors in it. Instead of paying attention to this budding teacher's great ideas, I was keeping a tally sheet of every mistake I found. It was a twenty-two-page article with thirty-three blatant, glaring mistakes. That's an average of exactly one and a half per page. And these were not stylistic errors, either, though there were plenty of re-wordings I would have suggested had I been this man's teacher. Nor were these picky blunders, like sentence fragments or slightly unclear sentences. These were flat out wrong; either they were typos, punctuation errors, or even homophone confusion. And yes, these things made this paper very difficult for me to read! How can I be expected to learn anything from this man's article about how to teach third grade if the guy needs to go back to second grade to learn his grammar?

There are times when incorrect grammar, typos, and word misuse are perfectly acceptable, annoying at worst. One of these is when children are first learning to write. Just as invented spellings help children learn the "right" spellings later on and aid vocabulary, so different styles and voices should be exercised when beginning to write for the first time. At this stage, mistakes are tolerable. If they are always expected to write flawlessly from day one, these fledgling writers will never try out their wings on complex sentences.

Another time that the occasional mistake is forgivable is during very informal communication. Of course I would never edit a friend's e-mail or personal letter (unless I was asked, heh), nor would I correct a person's speech during a conversation. The main purpose of these friendly exchanges is to share thoughts, and if this can be done without following any "rules," so be it. I would probably notice and be slightly annoyed by any mistakes in communication; however, that is only because I am an English geek and people's misuse of language is my pet peeve.

Of course, it is also acceptable to make the occasional mistake if one is foreign. I do not expect you to communicate perfectly if you are just learning, much like the example dealing with new writers. But if you expect to publish in a venue that is read by the English-speaking public and you care what they think of you, hiring an editor would be good.

These errors become a major problem in formal writing. I am angered and annoyed that any person who is becoming a teacher of our children could write such a ridiculously incorrect article . . . and not only have it published to learn from, but go on to teach the same mistakes. Shouldn't our teachers be literate? The mistakes in this article are the kind we would expect a third-grader to make, but only in a first draft. No one is going to send this man back to third grade or test his grammar before he becomes a teacher; actually, he probably is teaching right now, blissfully unaware that his article has an error and a half on every page. Something about this just strikes me as wrong. Why was this article allowed to be published with so many blemishes on it, anyway? Who edited it? Probably no one, or maybe it was the spellchecker. That is not sufficient. I am appalled not only because the article was written this way by a supposedly literate man, but also because someone (possibly lots of someones) allowed it to be published as a learning tool for me.

Perhaps there are those who will read this and think, "Who cares?" Indeed, who cares about correct word usage? We all know what they mean to say, right? Wrong. I admit to being an English geek, so maybe I am bothered more than other people by mistakes in writing; nonetheless, when the sentence can't flow because some yutz has forgotten his comma, I lose it, and many others probably do too. How often do we all have to read over sentences, say them out loud to ourselves, then try to extrapolate the meaning? If this sort of process has to occur . . . folks, that indicates that the sentence is too complicated. The purpose of writing is to communicate, and words, punctuation, and grammar are tools to help us do just that. If they're used incorrectly we are not getting the right message!

If you've got a piece of really great writing and you're planning on showing it to the world, there are some things you should consider. Your ideas will not be recognized as clearly if the language you use is faulty. Before you put your paper (or article, or editorial, etc.) in front of anyone whose opinion you value, remember the following things:

  • Homophones DO matter. Your is not the same thing as you're. Your spellchecker is not going to catch these for you, so learn them now.

  • Close your quotes. Close your parentheses. Close your brackets. There is nothing more annoying than reading along, waiting for the quote to end, to find out it was only one sentence long and the author has just neglected to include a closing quotation mark.

  • PROOFREAD YOUR WORK, and get someone else to proofread it too. Your computer's spellchecker does not count as a proofreader.

  • Learn your punctuation rules. And if this is too much for you, grammar books are not that expensive. Or you can e-mail me, I don't care, just for God's sake don't do it just because you saw it published publicly, those signs ARE WRONG all the time . . .

  • Don't fall Victim to Random Capitalization. There just aren't very many proper nouns. Social Studies is not a proper noun, and it sure wasn't a person the last time I checked.

  • Be consistent. Do you use toward and towards in the same article? They're both correct, but pick one and stick with it.

  • Learn the difference between possessive and plural! Yes, there's a difference! Contrary to popular belief, adding an apostrophe and the letter s to something does not make it plural!

  • Don't assume no one will notice or care if your grammar is not up to par. We do notice. And we most certainly do care.

As you can see, I haven't said a word about this student teacher's actual message. In all honesty I don't remember what the guy was trying to say. All I remember is how miserably he failed in getting his message across. I remember my thirty-three tally marks. I remember my frustration and disappointment as I read the article; my struggling to re-word the article's sentences so I could understand them; my recurring thought of "Why can't this man spell?" I'd like to take this opportunity to give some advice to the author of this article. Hello, there, sir. I'm sure you have really great ideas. But it was a chore to read your article. The purpose of writing it was to communicate with me, correct? You didn't succeed. Read your article out loud to yourself. Get an English teacher to correct it. Take a writing course, I don't care. Just word your ideas so that I can understand them. If you haven't learned this most basic skill of communication, how can you expect to tell me how to be a good teacher? Please consider this before any more of your articles get further than your hands.

This goes for everyone else, too. Your writing doesn't have to be as revolting as this example to still be ineffective. If you can't edit your own work, you should seriously get yourself an editor. Yes, it is that important. Otherwise, you are bound to have your target audience totally miss your point, and you will also fall victim to the criticism of my fellow English geeks. Do yourself a favor and learn your mother tongue.

I would like to reiterate here that though I wish everyone's writing would be perfect by the time it reaches my eyes, I do not expect this from small children or people whose first language is not English, though I am delighted when I receive perfect language structure from either.

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