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Why are we still arguing about spelling and punctuation?

It is hard to believe that we continue to have debates about whether it matters if people get their spelling and punctuation correct… especially among professionals.

Of course it matters. A proclaimed ‘expert’ in marketing put something online recently that was so littered with grammatical errors that it required an enormous amount of effort to maintain interest in what he was saying. It may have been great stuff but I had to switch off because it was presented so badly.

We know that a combination of the ‘Facebook generation’ and ‘text speak’ has created some interesting variations on the language that most of us recognise and that’s fine. Who wants to type ‘obviously’ on your phone when ‘obvs’ will do? For years we have talked about ‘comms’ instead of the full ‘communications’ and that is perfectly acceptable.

But what I’m talking about is when the language used is wrong – eg ‘Your doin fine’ or ‘I dont no wot there problem is’. My son talks in this way to his friends on Facebook and in texts and, although I battle it out with him, it seems there is almost an expectation that this is the format.

But when you’re writing a job application letter or doing a presentation or preparing a report, getting it right is vitally important. Indeed, it can make all the difference between success and failure.

People who learn journalism are taught how to proofread and how to mark up copy – there’s a whole bunch of recognised symbols. You pore over every word, every comma and apostrophe. If passing a publication for press you would tell the printer all the changes they needed to make (they might even spot one or two themselves). In the days of galley proofs I had a printer resort to drawing in an apostrophe because they were about to go to press and I’d noticed at the last minute that one was missing. I even toyed with the idea of delaying printing (and incurring costs) so that the correction could be made properly.

Yes, these things were that important. And they still are.

People who expect – and, indeed, insist on – high standards of English are not grammar Nazis and are not stifling creativity or freedom of expression, for heaven’s sake. It should be recognised that the 1990s classrooms got it wrong by encouraging schoolchildren not to worry about spelling and punctuation. That was a massive mistake and we are seeing the results of it today – not least in the fact that many teachers can’t spell for toffee and they pass their appalling mistakes on to their pupils. I remember one teacher writing in my lad’s schoolbook: “A definate improvement.” So I corrected it in red pen.

I wouldn’t expect to get any work if I didn’t adhere to the strictest standards of quality and accuracy and I wouldn’t employ anyone who didn’t either.

In the world of business, you have to get it right. It’s as simple as that.

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Rory Baxter, owner of The Word Factory, has decades of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations practitioner.

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