How should our written language evolve?

Language purists and evolutionists clash on which rules should stay or go. The author offers guidelines for resolving such passionate conflicts.

The battle lines have been drawn. On one side, we have purist writers and editors clinging to the certainty of grammar rules and consistent spelling.

On the other, we have people such as Anne Trubek, who recently agitated many readers in Wired magazine, by insisting: “Consistent spelling was a great way to ensure clarity in the print era. But with new technologies, the way that we write and read (and search and data-mine) is changing, and so must spelling.”

Readers are familiar with the heated debates ignited by posts on spelling, grammar, and punctuation. But instead of arguing for one side or the other, let’s try to establish some common ground.

Instead of quibbling about what’s right and what’s wrong, we ought to develop principles that should guide the evolution of our written language. Let me propose two: (1) We should defend the rules that help us understand each other, but allow those that don’t to fade into extinction. (2) It’s all about the readers.

Before you shake, scramble, and stomp my proposals, let me share some of my thinking.

Conventions that clarify

Although spelling consistency supports understanding, some flexibility seems to work. When Americans write “program” and Brits use “programme,” we know they mean the same thing.

It’s different when we rely on different spellings to distinguish different meanings. You do not want to confuse “I accept your offer” with “I except your offer.” These kinds of fumbles are frequent with homonyms. Spell check and other autocorrecting tools won’t catch them.

Fortunately, technology has made it easier to check whether we have the right word, rather than providing an excuse or killing brain cells. We can’t plead for lenience by claiming spell check made us do it. The failure of busy people to think and reread is to blame.

As guardians of the written word, we need to champion the distinctions that help us understand each other. So let’s politely correct the boss whose slide says “coarse” when she means “course.” And let’s insist on the correct use of apostrophes that enable us to understand whether we are referring to a possessive, contraction, or plural.

Let’s not fuss about dangling prepositions or split infinitives. They do not clarify.

Applications that show respect

For business writers, reader service should be our driving force. We should always adjust our language to our readers’ understanding and interest. We should not try to teach them our terminology or the dialect of the people we are writing for.

Anne cites texting as an example of how spelling is evolving. Almost everyone knows what LOL means. It lets us lighten up without risking misunderstanding, so it’s a handy addition to the lexicon. But in business communication, many readers aren’t yet ready for most other text terms. That’s why we should use only those that we are certain our readers understand and are comfortable with.

The same goes for all the technical language that people deploy because they’re aren’t thinking about their audience or want to impress, maybe even trick, with big words. If more people had understood what collateralized debt obligation or credit default swaps really meant, we might have avoided the 2008 financial meltdown.

We also need to respect how busy most people are by tightening our writing. This also demonstrates that we want to help our readers focus on our main message.

Trubek’s parting shot

In a follow-up post on her blog, Trubek restated her thesis: “”We need a new set of tools that recognize more variations instead of rigidly enforcing outdated dogma.”

I agree. But before we come up with a new set of tools, we need some principles to guide their redesign. I’ve shown you mine. Now let’s see yours.

Toronto writer and trainer Barb Sawyers is the author of “Write Like You Talk Only Better,” the secret to pulling ideas out of your head and onto the page.

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