Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reasons to be Clearful: Why I Like to Write Proper

Back in the early 80s, hair rock band Van Halen had a clause in their contract that said something to the effect 'there shall be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area'*. This included a comment that not following this clause could result in Van Halen packing up and going home (and/or trashing the backstage area).

Pointless, right?

Equally pointless is making sure that punctuation, spelling and grammar rules and conventions are adhered to when you're writing things, especially when you're posting them online. I mean, what matters is what you've got to say, not how you say it.

The thing is, if you go deeper into the Van Halen story you find that for Dave Lee Roth** & co. this M&Ms clause wasn't simply a bout of rock'n'roll prima-donna-ishness. It was about making sure things were done right. As a big touring band, many of the clauses in their contract involved technical issues, and many of those involved safety considerations. The idea was that if they got to their backstage area and found that this most pointless of all clauses had been catered for, then it was a fairly good bet that the really important ones had been covered. If there was a brown M&M in attendance, this was a small alarm bell that something may be amiss, and then they could get the right people on to checking things with a fine-toothed comb. Or just trash the place and leave.

This is how I approach things I come across on the internet (or, indeed, in any written form): If there are brown M&Ms in the text (i.e. sentences and proper nouns aren't started with capital letters, punctuation marks are placed seemingly at random and apostrophes are growing with wild abandon out of the most unusual of places), then it raises a suspicion in me that maybe the meaning and content of the text itself might not be all that worth reading. Put a slightly different way, if the basics (such as looking up the correct spelling of a word if you're not sure, or working out whether a colon or a full-stop would be best) haven't been covered, then how on Earth can I be sure that you haven't skimped on the decidedly more difficult task of making sure that what you're writing is considered and reasonable?

The answer is that I can't.

Of course, a piece of writing that has perfect grammar, imaginative syntax and spelling straight out of whichever academic tome is the authority on such things*** is not necessarily factually correct and imbued with sense and reason, but it does give the impression that a little thought has gone into it at the very least.

So take note, please, those of you out there in cyberspace who do things like post links to pro-creationist and pro-geocentrism websites on the contact form of a [not as] popular [as I'd like it to be] astronomy questions blog, that typing in ALL-CAPS followed by strings of exclamation marks is the online equivalent of barely coherent ranting, and every misplaced apostrophe is the uncontrollably ejaculated spittle that hits my face as a result, and it won't be given the time of day.

If you've got this far and know that you, yourself suffer from some grammatical blips from time to time, you could do worse than have a flick through some of the posts I've written with the hope of providing some help for those who never really 'got' the rules. They're under the SPAG tag for this blog. Maybe you're as fed up with people getting it wrong as I am, in which case you might think it useful to find the specific misdemeanour under the SPAG tag, and quietly point the offender in its direction.

* This is not, apparently, urban rock-legend, but true, if is any kind of authority.
** Who, totally irrelevantly, shares my birthday.
*** It occured to me after writing that sentence that the reference book I'm alluding to may well be a dictionary.