Saturday, March 28, 2015

Long live the typo

On one hand, a misspelled word or an incomplete sentence are embarrassing, especially if they are found on a university’s site. On the other hand, erroneous or outdated information, even grammatically and stylistically perfect, is even more embarrassing. In a perfect world, neither of these things would occur. But in the world we all live in, one often has to choose one of the lesser evils. Why?- Because we simply don’t always have the time and resources to attend to both. It is a really simple dilemma: I realize there is a factual error on the site, so I go in and change it right away. Of course, every edit introduces a probability of spelling and grammatical error. But I have time only to fix the factual error. Or, alternatively, for help I only have a person with such qualifications that errors will be missed. What do you want me to do? The answer will tell me a lot about what you value and what priorities you have.

It is actually fairly expensive to develop an organizational infrastructure to proofread all major communications; not just in money, but also in time. And we produce A LOT of text now – millions of emails, some to a large audiences, websites, various memos, reports. And especially when an organization is changing, there are a lot of moving pieces in its communicational function. I cannot see any way of reducing the textual output without actually hurting the organizational dynamics. If you one of top leaders, and you clamp down really hard on typos, you will inevitably create a hurdle for your staff to actively communicate, to produce more text quickly. If you do not control the typos at all, you project a poor image of your organization. So it is a dilemma and a balancing act. But it is clear to me that an overwhelming bias against typos does a disservice to the organization. You will erect barriers by chasing away every typo. You end up with static, unchanging sites, full of factual errors, omissions, outdated information. You will discourage people from improvisational, opportunistic behavior, because no one will do anything quickly, knowing that every report has to go through an editor.

It also occurs to me that the value of perfect spelling, style and grammar goes down. Most people develop somewhat higher tolerance to typos. I did anyway, perhaps because I know how these things are produced. I am a lot more annoyed by old, outdated web sites, and by sleek, but unimaginative reports and presentations. Of course, like everyone else, I love something both brilliant and typo-free. Alas, it is not that common. And to tell you the perfect truth, when it is too perfectly written, I don’t expect much from the text. I think “Oh, you had time to do all this… What did you have to give up instead?”

The old grammarian regime was established by graduates of elite liberal arts universities, where perfect style, grammar, spelling were a mark of high status, and a gatekeeping mechanism to keep the unwashed masses down. It was created so you could humiliate and dismiss anything that comes from a less educated person, with not enough time to learn the hundreds of thousands spellings of random words. Massification of higher education and of cognitive labor together brought in huge volumes of not-so-perfect writing, often done by non-native speakers and by non-elite education. The old elites are incredibly annoyed by that, because their grip to intellectual power is being questioned by bad writing. The level of annoyance is sometimes difficult to understand, as if confusing chose and choose is a personal affront. I do always fix student errors, but never pay too much attention to it while grading. If I understand the intentions of the author, she did her job as a writer, didn’t she? The rest is just personal preferences.

The notion of good writing is not set in stone. It is clearly different in cell phone messaging than it is in fiction writing. One can value clarity, precision, and humor more than perfect spelling, and, - punctuation. It is only one of many regimes of the power matrix, like dress code, accent, and manners. All languages lived without orthography for centuries, and did OK. Moreover, inventive spelling was once a sign of creativity. Only the high modernity invented the one correct way of spelling, and rules for putting in commas and periods. It was a reaction of educated classes to the spread of literacy. They had an interest in differentiating the bad kind of literacy from the good one, so they could claim the privilege of possessing the latter. But the grammarians’ grip on power may be loosening, as more people are able to use their imperfect writing for mass communication. Hence the anxiety, for we need to wither fight for the existing marking, or invent a new one. Otherwise, how will we recognize each other through text?

Screw the uptight proper writing. Long live the typo.

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