Word crimes and the grammar police

A still from Weird Al's "Word Crimes" video.They’re is no shame in misspelling…. Their is no shame in misspelling…. There is no shame in mispelling….

The anonymous nature of the Internet allows for plenty of unpleasant behavior, with trolling and cyberbullying right up there. Even where real names are attached, if you’re addressing strangers, it’s all too easy to lay into them in a way you wouldn’t if you were face to face.

Apparently a subset of this unpleasant behavior is shaming people for everything from being fat to being ugly to … using bad spelling? Even homophones?

Gee whiz, people. Sure, I notice when folks like former copyeditors Pat Myers and Carolyn Hax and current copyeditor Bill Walsh leave out a letter or throw in an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong. But first, occupational hazard. (They’d notice the same about me.) Second, there’s a big difference between a typo on the fly—in an email, Facebook post, or online chat, none of which is meant to be perfect—and something that’s at least read over carefully before print, let alone scrutinized by multiple professional eyes.

I adored Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” a video that has achieved almost 24 million viewings on YouTube. (Weird Al is brilliant. Parodying a top-selling and hugely catchy tune didn’t hurt.) But a Twitter account for the Grammar Police, with 19,000 followers, shames regular people for what Andrew Heisel calls “little language errors.” That’s just not funny.

Who’s Andrew Heisel? He’s a Connecticut writer who’s—excuse me, whoseop-ed in the Washington Post last week objected to this new trend. But he didn’t just object; he set out to find out why even those of us who know better slip up.

Turns out it’s pretty interesting stuff. Heisel talked to two cognitive psychologists, who mentioned everything from associative grouping to homophones (we often think in terms of pronunciation, which is why language patterns in the deaf vary so much from those in the hearing) to motor-system habits to cognitive control.

“Of course, people can and should proofread (a practice the brain complicates as well), but we can never fully curtail these slips that rapid-fire media like Twitter bring to the fore,” he wrote. “Mocking another person for making one of them is like mocking a heart for skipping a beat.”

Heisel noted in conclusion that he’d made numerous errors while typing his article. So have eye—I mean I. Spell check may have made us lazy, but any downsides are outweighed at least 10 to 1 by its upsides.

A few weeks ago, I was checking an old cover letter when I noted an inverted pair of words. The letter went out that way? I’d read it over and over and hadn’t seen that? Well, yes. The more you read your own work, the less you see such errors. Had the words been bigger, of course I’d have noticed, but these were very tiny words….

I suppose drunk-dialing an ex at 3 am might be more embarrassing than an editor’s sending a potential employer a letter boasting of how good an editor she is and including an obvious mistake like that. But the consequences are probably worse in the second case. Naturally, I never heard from the employer.

Lesson for this editor: Watch out and do better next time. And there’s still no excuse for mess-ups by people who have editors. As for regular folks whose motor-system habits slip on occasion? Come on, grammar police (and Grammar Police). Lighten up.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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