Thursday, May 18, 2006

Write What You Speak, Speak What You Write

By Nichole Giles

Recently, I overheard someone on a cell phone asking the person on the other end, “Where you at?” The woman speaking was well groomed and, as she was in the garden section of a home improvement store buying armloads of flowers, I assumed she was neither completely uneducated, nor living in a ghetto. So why, I wondered, had she sounded as if she was? And why was I wondering?

It was the way she spoke. Unfortunately, so many people in our country have become so accustomed to using slang they forget about basic sentence structure, as well as basic rules of grammar. Even more unfortunately, many people write the same way they speak.

People write all the time. In everyday living, and in a great many jobs, there is some amount of writing required. You don’t have to be a writer to write. Police officers write reports, construction workers write invoices and bids for jobs, fast food employees write assembly instructions and recipes. The mother who stays at home with her children must write notes to teachers, grocery lists, and instructions for the occasional babysitter. Everyone has written a letter. People write, no matter their professions.

Fortunately, when it comes to publication, editors require a higher standard of writing. I am so grateful for good grammar when I read a book that I find myself wanting to jump up and shout, “Hooray for editors!” When I do come across a poorly written piece, I throw it down and never look at it again.

As I sat in the office of some important people the other day, a man in his forties who has worked his way up the ladder to a respectable position in his profession said, “I ain’t gonna be the one to find it. Last time I seen it, so-and-so had it.”

I don’t know what he was looking for, and I don’t care. I couldn’t get past his grammar. How sad that his poor grammar stood out so badly that I will always associate him with bad speech. It left me wondering if he writes his work reports using the same language habits. I later found out he does, indeed.

You don’t have to have a college degree to use proper grammar, but using bad grammar is almost a sure sign that you don’t have one. Words, when used correctly, can be powerful tools for anyone in any profession. A person who is grammatically correct rarely stands out when speaking; the words become invisible in speech, as you would want them to in writing. However, a person who uses bad grammar distinguishes him or herself as uneducated or dimwitted, when they often are not. For example: A person who speaks of feelings but pronounces the word fillings. Another good one is a human being spoken as human bean. My all-time favorite was actually written in a place where many people had the misfortune of reading it. In reference to a chest of drawers was written the Chester drawers.

Maybe someday someone will invent a spelling and grammar check for the human brain. That way when we open our mouths, we can delete the not-so-smart sounding phrases that want to fly out. Fillings will be left in jelly doughnuts and teeth, human beans will be a great side dish, and Chester can keep his drawers to himself.


Anonymous said...

Good point, Nichole. We can all benefit from improving our command of the English language and paying attention to what we're saying.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you--mostly. Good grammar, spoken and written, is like cotton candy for the ears. It is an ideal for which we should all strive. But we have to be careful in assuming that poor grammar is an indication of intelligence, or rather, lack thereof.

For example, my father is one of the most brilliant people I know, but he can't spell worth a lick, can't construct a grammatically correct sentence to save his life, and frequently makes every single one of the grammar mistakes you mentioned (and MANY more). And yet, he is sought out by Fortune 500 companies and U.S. governmental agencies to help them create software upon which the life and vibrancy of their companies depend.

Grammar is only one skill set and when it comes to writing and story telling, it's not the most important one. Many wonderful writers are dyslexic and can't spell, but their lack in the spelling skill set does not prevent them from writing well. There are numerous other learning and/or communication difficulties that create the appearance of ignorance and hide the genius beneath it.

A writer's genius is to simply tell a compelling story. An editor's genius is to make it shine.

Nichole Giles said...

Good point anonymous. Thanks for your comment. However, I believe it is a good idea for writers to try and practice good grammar habits in speech, as well as writing.

When a person uses good grammar, it does make their words invisible, which is the point of this blog. Words should not jump out at you, in writing or speech.

Many of the people I am close to are extremely intelligent people who use terrible grammar, and I would never judge them for it.

However, suppose I were interviewing two people for a job. Both were equal in every qualification, except their pattern of speech. If I had to choose only one, I would pick the one who used better grammar.

I've never heard of anyone who keeled over from the effort of improving his/her grammar. But I've known plenty of people who have been better for it.