Sunday, September 23, 2007

Guardians of the English Language

By Terrie Bittner

I am the training manager at and select new columnists. One of my greatest challenges is finding people who know how to use commas. In fact, I’ve become positively obsessed with commas lately. Some applications have none. Almost worse are those in which the applicant grabbed a handful of commas and threw them at the article.

The very worst applications are those with a single sentence article. We require four hundred words. Have you ever tried to read a four hundred word sentence? There are applications written in text message style, those that have every word misspelled, and the ones with no capital letters—or nothing but capital letters. There are days when I threaten to only select writers from England. I’ve yet to receive an application from England with any of these problems.

Sometimes rejected applicants will ask why they weren’t accepted. They will explain they are the next Shakespeare, and they need this column to get started, and won’t we be sorry when they’re famous and they tell everyone we turned them down? At first, I tried to be helpful and explain they were rejected because their grammar, punctuation, and spelling weren’t at a professional level. I soon learned, though, this extra step was pointless. Nearly all responded, “But I just want to write great stories. I don’t need all that junk.”

A carpenter needs a hammer. A teacher needs chalk. A doctor needs a stethoscope. A writer needs words, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. They’re the tools of our trade. Years ago, when I read that the Internet was destroying writing skills, I laughed it off. My own children, who homeschooled, wrote better after their writing was placed on the Internet and people commented on their skills. However, in the past few years, I’ve begun to be worried about the future of writing. Are we destined to read books written in text messaging style? Will “are” be permanently replaced with a single letter? Will capital letters go out of style? The new Shorter OED says the hyphen is going out of style because of Internet and designers. They’ve removed it from many words. Is the capital letter next?

I read recently that many old languages are dying out. As writers, we’re perhaps the last protector of another dying language—good English. It’s up to us to safeguard capital letters, periods, and the proper use of commas.

Soldiers…take your posts.

1 comment:

Steve Booth said...


I could not agree with you more. In fact I have another, more professional perspective on this particular issue. I do software development and technical writing as a part of my vocation (to pay for my impulse to write fiction), and the situation in the Information Technology universe is getting progressively worse every day.

In their mad rush toward lowering the almightily ‘bottom line’, many software companies in the IT sector are hiring off-shore developers, or simply moving their entire development departments to third-world countries. There are some extremely bright, albeit nearly starving programmers out there that can speak C# fluently. Unfortunately they have little or no command of the English language. As a result they produce woefully inadequate documentation for the applications they create, and the material that is produced is… well… atrocious by any normal standard. They seem, as a whole, to have forgotten that pronouns exist, for example.

As a consequence the resulting software applications, though technically brilliant, are virtually useless because no one can understand how they work. Forget commas. Let’s have some people who can write English!

Steven M .Booth