The Unimportance of Words

I am close with people who work in a local newspaper.  One of them is my wife.  Recently, a reporter was writing an article and showed the finished copy to my wife, who has some skills in writing and editing.  She was appalled at the number of errors.  Comma splices turned normal sentences into page-long sentences without pause.  Repetition ran rampant.  In short, it showed the lack of writing skill that this “writer” possessed.  My wife, to be helpful, went through the piece with a red pen and made a number of corrections to try and improve the piece.  Of course, she wouldn’t have done this if she had not been asked, so she felt that she was doing something both helpful and nice.

The editor stopped by and saw her work.  “You can’t give this back to her,” he said.  My wife was puzzled.  “It will look like you’re picking on her.  She’ll see how much you’ve ripped her article apart and will take offense.”  My wife replied, “Don’t you think your newspaper should reflect good writing?”  He glared and said, “Most people won’t even notice the errors you’re pointing out.”  “Why?” My wife asked.  “Do you think most people are stupid?”  At this point, the editor got upset and took the article away from her.  To placify the other writer, he retyped the article with all of the corrections from my wife and then returned it to the original author, so that maybe she wouldn’t notice all of the changes.

What is wrong with this story?  I often ask people, if it’s ok to be imprecise with words, is it ok to be that way with numbers?  If the guy who cuts your paycheck gets most of the numbers right, is that ok?  If the mechanic puts back most of the nuts and bolts when he gives you back your car, will you feel safe?  If the doctor stitches up most of your wound, will you feel better?  Why is language given the least importance?  Most of the people I interact with feel this way.  “Oh, you know what I mean.”  Communication problems account for a large percentage of the conflicts in the world today.  Whether it’s the number of divorces, or large scale wars, they could most be avoided if not for problems in communication.  And yet, the importance of words is given less and less importance by more and more people.

Unless they are telling a joke.

What does that tell us?

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts. 



  1. renaissanceguy said,

    September 10, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    You are absolutely right in all your points.

    I don’t make it my business to correct other people’s use of language, except in two very narrow circumstances:

    (1) When they are my students. Then it is my job to help them get it right.
    (2) When they make their living as speakers or writers. Then it is their job to get it right.

  2. goofy said,

    December 27, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    It’s hard to say without knowing what the errors were. What some usage books call errors, others say are acceptable. What some people say is “bad grammar” has been used by our best writers for centuries. And different registers have different rules, what’s acceptable in one style of writing is not acceptable in another.

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