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Education Writing

Efficient communication is a worthy goal

There are two instances in which I have had this jumbled-word paragraph brought to my attention:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

(The original source is here, but the server appears to be down right now.)

The first time was when I was still an English teacher. One of my students, after having gone through a rather rigorous unit on grammar thought it was amusing. When I shared it with my co-planning teacher, he said he’d rather have shards of glass stuck in his eyes than read papers written that way.

The second time was on the Ubuntu Forums, and a forum member thought a few of us (who occasionally correct others’ grammar or spelling when we just can’t take it any more) were being pedantic, so she or he saw fit to show us that spelling doesn’t really matter.

Here’s the thing, though: as my former colleague pointed out with his exaggeration about shards of glass, just because you can read something doesn’t mean you want to read it the way it’s presented.

After all, I can watch fuzzy black-and-white television on a four-inch screen while I constantly push the antennae around in futile attempts to get better reception, and still hear all the dialogue and understand what’s going on in the movie or television show I’m viewing. I can also listen to third-generation mix tapes that have had two decades of deterioration and still “hear” the music I’m listening to.

Nevertheless, I somehow still like clear pictures in HD on large screens that have digital surround sound and also still prefer to listen to CD-quality recordings of music. The same goes for language and communication. Grammar and spelling conventions and rules don’t exist just to make your life miserable—they actually are around because consensus gives meaning to words, phrases, syntax, and punctuation. If you follow the established guidelines, you don’t leave it up to your reader to make meaning of what you’ve said; you convey the meaning to your reader. Good writing is like an HD-quality movie or a CD-quality song.

That doesn’t mean we have to fly off the deep end and nitpick grammar points that don’t matter (split infinitives or misuse of the terms compose and comprise, for example), but it does mean we should strive to be understood most efficiently, with the fewest words, and with the least amount of work on the part of the reader.