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Wilbers: The standards of good writing evolve with technology

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • August 16, 2012 - 9:56 PM

The times, they are a changing. These days when I write, my big fat thumbs keep hitting the wrong little keys on this handheld device. How annoying.

And yet how miraculous. I can communicate instantaneously with people around the planet from this granite boulder on the shore of Lake Superior or from this dock in north central Wisconsin or from this car careening down the freeway while other drivers scatter in all directions. (Just kidding, my wife is at the wheel.)

Still, it tries my patience. So being an adaptable Darwinian creature, I alter my approach. I tap the icon for voice recognition, and I spelt out an entire paragraph, and when I say "comma" or "." or even "open quotes" and "close quotes," it knows what I mean (or with this particular device, "she" knows what I mean).

Even so, I have to go back and make corrections, in this case cutting spelt and thumbing in spout, which is what I said, and changing "." to "period." Impressive though imperfect.

But what really gives me pause (to use an outdated but stately expression) -- what really blows my mind (moving all the way forward to the '60s) -- what stresses me to the max (hippest style I can muster at the moment) -- is that this dazzling technology is altering my habits and in subtle, disturbing ways challenging my assumptions about what constitutes good writing.

Especially in my personal, informal correspondence, where I've noticed a growing reluctance to go back and make little corrections, such as changing dad to Dad when I use the relationship in place of a name, or to add the missing hyphen in compound verbs such as to spot-check, or to remove it when it isn't needed, as in to sign-on.

After all, if the goal is to communicate clearly, quickly and conveniently and these minor departures from standard English don't interfere with that goal, does it matter? Why bother with capital letters, correct spelling and punctuation as long as you're meaning is clear.

Didn't you understand the previous sentence despite the misspelling of you're and the missing question mark?

One of the best answers I've seen was a July 20, 2012, Harvard Business Review blog by Kyle Wiens, who opens his post with this unforgettable line: "If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me."

Why not?

Wiens reasoning (oops, I forgot my apostrophe) boils down to three arguments: Good grammar is linked to credibility ("especially on the internet"), someone who needs "more than 20 years" to learn the fundamentals of language is a slow learner and people who are good with the details of language are likely to "make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing -- like stocking shelves or labeling parts." Or as Wiens also points out, writing programming code.

In my writing seminars I take it one step farther. Careful writing leads to careful thinking.

So the times, they are a changing ... but are they?

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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