General Web Design & Development

A is for apple…

B is for…bapple…

Today I’m going to deal with a particular bugbear of mine, namely, poor spelling and grammar. I’ve been inspired to do so by a blog I read yesterday, entitled “Learn To/Too F*&king Spell“. It’s short, sharp, and to the point – it’s important to spell things correctly, or you look like an amateur. While his blog is mainly dealing with the importance of correct spelling when putting together a website, I’m going to take his lead, and extend it to all areas of life. Rather than repeat the simple (but oft confused) rules, I’ll refer you again to that blog I’ve linked above, as it contains a rather nice graphical presentation near the end of the page explaining the differences between them. Once read, there should be no excuse for confusing your “to/two/too” or your “there/their/they’re”.

You could accuse me of being a pedant, and insist that, these days, the English language is changing so rapidly that to cleave to these old and “antiquated” grammar rules is ridiculous. And it is true to say that the meanings of many words have changed drastically over the years, occasionally even coming to mean the exact opposite of their original meaning. However, I’m not proposing that we all speak “olde English” again, but that we simply follow the most common rules of our time, the ones which are still in place, the ones which help with our understanding of the written word and enable us to effectively communicate across so many different text-based platforms.

Personally, I find it incredibly jarring to read a sentence that contains a word that is either spelled, or used, incorrectly. Take, for example, the often misused “there/their/they’re” set of words. Their going to that house over they’re is a sentence that is difficult to read, and when I began to study language (not a particular language, but language as a method of communication, grammar as a construct, etc) I realised that it’s not just me. Everyone should find the above sentence (or any like it) slightly jarring, because it causes us to change the way we read.

Most people skim through sentences and paragraphs when they read (and in the same way, most people skim around webpages, rather than reading every word in the order the designer may have imagined). Most people will be able to understand what you mean if you have a letter or two out of place in a word (e.g. peolpe, understnad). The correction will be an almost unnoticeable bump in the flow of general reading. But combine poor spelling with poor grammar, or too much of either, in one paragraph or piece of text, and you’re asking for trouble.

The speed at which people read a paragraph that is littered with grammatical errors, incorrectly punctuated, or badly spelled is dramatically slower than the speed at which they would normally read. That is because when we read, we store little bits of the sentences that have come before in our short term memory. That is why, for example, we can mention the name Mary in the first paragraph of a story, and for the rest of the page, refer to her as “she” or “her”, and people will still be able to understand what the story is about, and how it relates to Mary.

When you start a sentence with “Their”, for example, we scan this memory to try to figure out what you are referring to, and to remember what group of people and what belonging is being referred to by “their”. When we find something we think matches, we hold that in mind as we read the rest of the sentence. If you’ve used “their” when you meant “there”, this causes an unnecessary stutter in that process. We search for a group or belonging and if there aren’t any, we have to read on and hope that we can come to understand the sentence by the end. If there is a group, and/or a belonging, then we hold that in mind, and are confused when it transpires that the sentence doesn’t concern them at all.

Instead of being able to read through the sentence once, with any relevant additional data at the fore of our minds, we are forced to reread the sentence. We may even be forced to reread the sentence several times, as we struggle to understand what it means in the context of the paragraph and this additional data we’ve stored. All told, it slows down the process of reading, and turns something that is very enjoyable into an absolute chore.

When someone tries to tell you that spelling is important, please give it a second thought before dismissing it. It takes only seconds to review your spelling and grammar with a spellchecker, and it can completely change the experience for the reader.

So, repeat after me – They’re going over there to get their dinner. I brought two pies to the bake sale, but they had too many to sell already. Could you let me know where your house is, and at what time you’re likely to be there? We’re so happy that we were able to be there. It’s a shame that the dog didn’t like its new bowl…

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