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May I have a word with you?

Robert Downes - August 2nd, 2007
May I have a word with you?
Some of you who are regular readers of our Letters to the Editor page probably scratched your heads last week at the letter, “No cherry for the slice of pie I’m holding,” from Don Swan, who has a penchant for Capitalizing many Words without any Rhyme Or reason, much In the Style of the German Language.
I happen to know Don -- a local musician who heads up a band called The Company. I ran into him a few days before we ran his letter and said, “You know, Don, you might want to clean up the grammar in your letter because it’s not proper to have all of those capitalized letters.”
“But that’s how I type,” Don protested. “I capitalize every other word or however it comes out.”
So we ran his letter pretty much verbatim to capture a sense of his personality.
Editing letters is a ticklish business. Most of you write pretty darned good letters which require little or no editing. But some letters are such a disaster that they need a line-by-line revision. These tend to get sent back, because I don‘t want “your“ letter to become “my“ letter. The massive editing of these letters would mean gutting the personality and intentions of the writer.
Personally, I prefer more of an “unfiltered” approach to journalism, which has attracted the wrath of a proper grammarians through the years. Periodically, I’m taken to task for allowing haywire letters to sneak past our editorial checkpoint.
But to quote Winston Churchill, who was once upbraided for ending a sentence with a preposition, this is the sort of pedantic nonsense up with which I will not put.
I believe in “keeping it real” when it comes to the content of the Express -- and this unvarnished quality is what people like about the paper. A good model for this is talk radio or television, both of which offer an “unfiltered” quality that tends to get cleaned up in the print media.
When you listen to talk radio, you get clued in to the speaker’s background by the quality of his or her voice and grammar. You can sort of tell who’s a high school dropout, a jailbird, a fanatic or an egghead from subtle clues in their voice. You can often deduce the race of the speaker, or even if he or she is from Africa or India. On TV or talk radio there’s no editor standing over the speaker, correcting his grammar the way there is in the pages of a newspaper.
Bad language, poor logic and improper grammar are indicators of the writer’s state of mind. If a letter is a mess, then that helps the reader understand that its writer may be something of a mess as well.
Typically, newspapers clean up letters or quotes to make writers look “better“ than they might come across in person. That’s dishonest. It‘s a whitewash. Often, you have to read “between the lines“ in a newspaper to intuit that a letter writer is a callow youth, an old coot, or some flavor of crackpot. Personally, I’d rather have that information up-front with some good old-fashioned bad grammar.
Ironically, few letters are duller than those which come from over-educated Ph.D types bent on showboating their intellects. Often, letters from folks who insist on having a string of initials after their names are so full of academic jargonese and empty adjectives that they are practically unreadable. They may use impeccable grammar, but they‘ve lost the ability to write in plain English.
Grammarians like to imagine that there is a “proper” form of written communication, but this is patently untrue. In Britain, you will often find the “quote” marks inside the period at the end of a sentence, rather than outside of the period, which is the case in America. If you read the New York Times, you will read dates abbreviated as the 80s’, whereas in the Associated Press, it’s always the ‘80s. Then there’s the German language, which capitalizes all nouns.
If the New York Times, the AP, Der Spiegel and the London Times can’t agree on punctuation and grammar, what hope is there for the rest of us?
What is correct in language? In the end, only the fact that it will change. Language is a churning river in a constant state of flux. Shakespeare and Chaucer made up words as they went along, while the grammarians of his day blew gaskets over Mark Twain’s characters speaking in the vernacular. And 2day’s Internet society is doing much the same 4u, with nu ways of IMing :).
What counts in the end is whether you get the message, or just some pale shade of it.
 
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