Speaking of Which: Why words matter. Why everything matters

28 Sep,2012

By Vidya Heble


I had a little run-in on a discussion board recently with someone who argued fiercely that attention to grammar and accurate language should stop when the workday stops. Sure, she has a point, though I don’t agree with it. In any case, it’s one that was valid some – many – years ago, when our work lives and our non-work lives were demarcated fairly clearly. We swiped out or signed out and went home, and lived our other lives. Those of us who had a telephone may have had some seepage of work into their personal lives but if that happened it was an emergency; it was not expected and certainly not taken for granted.


Nowadays, work and life are one and the same thing, as the constant tap-tapping on diminutive keyboards all around us demonstrates. I’ve staunchly resisted getting a smartphone because I don’t want to be working 24/7. Though I work primarily from home, I want to be able to switch off when required, and not take my email with me to the vegetable market.


But for many, it’s taken for granted that even if they are with their immediate family or close friends at a personal event late at night, an email can be read and answered, a work call can be made. It’s insane. Work is almost never switched off. It is also the reason one cannot switch off grammar and spelling, either. There is no excuse for using language badly, but at least a case can be made for informal usage, shortcut spellings specially in the age of SMS, and a disregard for grammar that, when done well, can be charming (for example, the deliberate muffing of the language on icanhascheezburger.com).  But that’s when you’re at play, not at work.


Today, there is practically no demarcation between work and play. We write emails side by side with Facebook posts. Breaking the rules in one seeps through into the other, hence it’s better to follow the rules for both. For those who communicate, communicating well needs to become second nature.


But how much does grammar and spelling matter? Let’s find out. Back when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize, the Sunday edition of a certain publication carried comprehensive coverage of her and her family, mainly her mother Mary Roy who was already a very well-known person in a different sphere. The story on Mary Roy was written by someone based in a part of India where, as I learnt later, they pronounce “Marie” as “Mary”. (How they pronounce Mary, I have no idea.) So the publication’s correspondent wrote the whole story about “Marie Roy”, and because she was senior enough, no one questioned it. And so it was that this Sunday publication was probably the only one in the country which talked about Arundhati Roy’s mother “Marie” Roy. Incidentally, that correspondent was the same person who had the argument with me (and ended it by unfriending me on Facebook).


Spelling may not matter to some… but what if you are the one whose name is misspelt? What if the name you misspelt belongs to a future boss of yours?


That’s why it matters. Try to get it right. Because someone, somewhere will notice.


PS: On a Singapore Airlines flight I read an article on tea in their inflight magazine Silver Kris. The brand of tea Twinings was spelt “Twinnings”, a surprising gaffe for a magazine of that quality. I happened to know the writer of the article and later asked her how the mistake had happened. “Oh but that’s the spelling,” she said. “Haven’t you seen the brand in the supermarket?” I asked her. “Of course I have,” she said, “that’s the name, Twinnings.” Lesson: You can wave the brand name under the writer’s nose but you still can’t make them spell it right if they don’t want to.


‘Speaking of which’ is a new fortnighly series that (or should we say ‘which’?) will, among other things, talk of common errors people in our media make, and how good usage can make for better communication. Written by Vidya Heble, Deputy Editor, MxMIndia and Managing Editor, The Blue Pencil Company, a content editing and writing start-up. Vidya has over two decades of experience in advertising, print and online media… in India, the Gulf and Singapore. She has also edited books, written speeches and communiques and recently took a sabbatical to set up and execute the online avatar of a popular show.


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One response to “Speaking of Which: Why words matter. Why everything matters”

  1. greg says:

    Hmmm. Shouldn’t that be “…has MORE THAN two decades of experience…” since “over” pertains to position rather than quantity?