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Robisms – Making sense of grammar and spelling for the 21st century blogger

or flying in the face of grammar and style rules….

To my friends who edit professionally, please take this with the humor its meant to be. I’m making fun of myself more than anything. You are important to me. You make my writing good!

Its been a well understood fact that photographers, like me, can’t write captions very well. Editors of the publications we shoot for are constantly having to rewrite our captions. We work with light, they work with words and that’s the way it supposed to be.

In my current incarnation as a trainer of information technology products for a company comprised mostly of print publications, I have to produce various documents needed for our training sessions, including Microsoft Powerpoint presentations.

In my workgroup, I have the pleasure of working with a few wonderful copy editors and my products have to satisfy copy editors at the individual publications. I have an audience where my language fopah’s (oops that should be “faux pas”) are going to stand out like a sore thumb. And being a photographer, my writing skills are suspect and my co-workers frequently have to “bust me”, er. correct my mistakes.

In the Internet blogosphere there are a lot of writers who either do not have a writing background or do not have a copy editor. A lot of spelling and grammatical errors creep into their writing.

Lets step back and discuss where our grammar rules come from. Spelling is pretty straight forward (except for those “do you use glamor or glamour?” type questions). Our tools, in particular if you use Firefox or Safari as your web browser, are good at helping us with misspelled words. They however cannot correct when you use the wrong version of words. If you use “your” when you meant “you are” or “you’re”, these tools don’t catch those blunders. Word processing tools like Microsoft’s “Word” does attempt grammar correction, but its not perfect.

Our grammar rules come from books called “Style Guides”. There are two primary guides in use in the United States. The one you find in your English classes and is a required text book in most college English 101 classes is Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”. This book was first published in 1918 and has been updated as our language rules have changed over time (though not much!).

The other primary style guide in use, in particular in news media is the Associate Press Style Book. For the most part, these two books have the same rules. My introduction to both style books dates back to the 80’s and I remember having to deal with rules where the AP says you write single digits as words, and starting with double digits, you write them as numbers. S&W says the same thing except for the number 10, which AP says to write as “10”, S&W says to write as “ten”. These subtleties though are enough to drive someone batty.

In my constant struggle with my photographer’s grammar I realized that I should produce my own style guide. Without further ado, I present the Robbie Style Guide

Rule Number 1. “Interpret”.

My wife was keen to always tell me and the boys that when we would be trying to read “between the lines” on things and got hung up on it and a heated dialog would start. Well this makes good sense. When you read a blog with bad grammar or a misused word, you figure out what they really meant. Perhaps we should take the rules of grammar and consider them guidelines open to artistic interpretation. Speed to press is important. Languages evolve. Be part of the evolution.

Rule Number 2. Spelling, who needs it.

Get it close. Our brains figure it out. Humans can figure out words as long as they have the length and first and last letters correct. Spelling just isn’t that important at the end of the day.

Rule Number 3. Don’t get hung up on “affect” vs. “effect”.

Even the online dictionaries confuse themselves when trying to explain it. Feel free to use either word interchangeably. I recently used this language in a PowerPoint:

It also affects images being added to a gallery.

My friends and co-workers passed this one, so I musta got it right, but if you follow the online dictionary’s rules linked above, I could use either. Language purists will argue this point, but if you write it either way you get the point don’t you?

Rule Number 4. Quotes and Periods.

The normal rule is periods ALWAYS go inside quotes. For quotes, I agree:

Kat said “Rob, this is a stupid blog post.”

This is the absolutely right way to handle this. But what if you are writing:

Set the CSS style to “width:300px.”

While S&W and the AP would say this is correct. It is far from correct. The quotes here have a default implication of taking the text inside the quotes in a specific context. I should be able to cut and paste that text or type it in exactly as needed. That rogue period will foul up things. Using the Robbie Style Guide that period would be outside the quotes since the contents inside are in a specific context and is not a sentence to be completed. I’m right on this, you know I am.

Rule Number 5. Ending sentences with emoticons.

We all like our smiley faces. I’m old school so I like mine as :-) and :-( for example. Being the purist :) and :( would be incorrect, but hey, time is money so keystrokes are money, so I can’t fight the two character versions to much.

Frequently when I write something that should be read a bit lighter, I’ll end the sentence with :-). See how weird that period looks? That’s not part of the emoticon. If I put a space in such as :-) . would be even weirder. So the correct way is to just not use the period at all and allow the emoticon close the sentence. After all, we use ? and ! to express emotion in our writings. Emoticons are just longer strings of closing characters.

You also have to concern yourself when you use things in parenthesis (much like this :-))

This one is problematic for a couple of reasons. The double )) doesn’t look right or it could be interpreted as a “double chin”. The right paren that makes up the emoticon closes the left paren nicely, however; many software programs, like email clients, instant messenger programs, twitter clients and such will take the smiley :-) and turn it into a graphical emoticon . In fact, this blog, which is built in WordPress by default converts them for you.

So if you use a :-) and your viewer’s software translates it you would end up with something that looks (much like this

In this case, the left paren has not been balanced. So my recommendation is to write all software makers and request that they cease and desist from using graphical emoticons. Since that’s unlikely to happen and you can’t win with this rule, just close it with one right paren so it will look right to the readers who see text emoticons and the graphical readers will just have to deal.

Rule Number 6. Those pesky commas!

I love commas. You should use them freely. My wife who edits a lot of my work thinks I use too many. I took four years of Chorus in high school. Having places to breathe in a sentence is important. We don’t want to write short, choppy sentences just to put periods in to breathe. Commas are good short breath points. A good point to add commas are before connecting and’s, or’s and but’s. Most style guides say to never use a comma before and’s and or’s, by the way.

I’m going to see Holly and Emily

I agree, no comma.

I enjoy Lori, Kristi and Steve’s company.

or

I enjoy Lori, Kristi, and Steve’s company.

The main style guides would ban the comma before the and. I would suggest that in this case it just doesn’t matter.

I’m going to the store to get eggs, bacon, biscuits, orange juice and jelly.

Again the main style guides would say no comma, but the longer that list gets, the more important that comma becomes.

I’m going to the store to get eggs, bacon, biscuits, orange juice, and jelly.

Now since we are working with an obvious list that we may want to convert to an unordered list in HTML or parse into some grocery list database, having that comma helps with parsing. I could do a couple of simple regular expressions and voila, I’ve got data I can use.

would produce:

See the beauty of having that comma to help parse each of the list items? Love them, embrace them, use them.

Rule number 7. Your vs. You’re, Its vs It’s, etc.

Does it really matter? “Your reading my blog post right now.” You understood that. Why should I have to write extra stuff to “make it right”. It should have read “You’re reading my blog post right now”. Now of course “Your” is a possessive meaning something that belongs to you, like “your car” where “you’re” is a contraction for “You are” and have completely different meanings though they are pronounced the same.

There are a lot of places in our language where we have to have different words in written context than in a spoken context. Why do we need “to”, “two”, and “too” when we write though when we speak we will say “tu” for all three of them. Our brains will figure it out. Your and You’re, It’s and Its are the same spoken so why should I have to spend time to figure out which one to write or put in extra characters in my typing *when your going to read it right anyway*.

Oh, that apostrophe in “that’s” is simply wrong. Feel free to just write “thats”.

So what writing styles bug the ba-jeebees out of you? Leave a comment below to share your favorite faux pas!

  1. brainmusic
    July 30th, 2009 at 22:38 | #1

    You got most of my pet peeves here! The only one you didn’t is then and than. My advisor CANNOT ever use those correctly and it drives me bonkers. I do a lot of editing of journal articles so I see a lot of all of the things you discussed up there :)

  2. admin
    July 30th, 2009 at 22:40 | #2

    I don’t have too many issues with “then” and “than”, but I know its a common problem.

  3. July 30th, 2009 at 22:43 | #3

    Very clever! and witty two. or is that 2 or to or too or shoot. i 4got what i wuz talking bout.

  4. Passiongirl
    July 30th, 2009 at 22:58 | #4

    I know someone who needs to read this one. Feel free to correct me if you find I do any of that. I have told a friend about the then and than rule and they still use it incorrectly. Drives me insane! Some of the mistakes are just laziness and the others are stupidity.

  5. July 31st, 2009 at 15:01 | #5

    You had me laughing and twitching at the same time :) I, too, am quite happy to use emoticons as “full stops,” but—oh, man—those others, they had me champing at the bit to correct :)

    BTW, what about the Chicago Manual of Style?

  6. admin
    July 31st, 2009 at 15:05 | #6

    I’m not familiar with that style guide either and they seem to want money :-)

  7. July 31st, 2009 at 15:23 | #7

    Great article! The order of consonants makes the difference in spelling-the vowel placement…not so much. I have a nice list of the spelling rules with examples and MP3s of spelling rule songs and raps to check out at Spelling Rules Songs and Raps.

  8. July 31st, 2009 at 23:05 | #8

    You hit all my common bloopers. I really like your argument for adding the last comma! I must confess, I have one spelling blooper I hate. People spell nonprofit as non-profit vs not-for-profit. Oh my!

  9. stargazer
    September 16th, 2009 at 08:00 | #9

    You hit on several of my pet peeves as well in a fun and creative way. Poor grammar drives me crazy. Same with poor spelling. Then/than, affect/effect, and many others!

    Check out: http://www.grammarbook.com/ and http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/.

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