My senior English teacher in high school once told the class that "if you know all of the rules of grammar, you can can break them at your discretion." I am not sure exactly what the message was there, other than to encourage us to actually learn them. She would drill us with quizzes to improve our grasp of these fundamental rules, something that we likely should have picked up on earlier in our education. Perhaps she saw what I already know to be the case -- people can tell a lot by how well you write. For many, senior English was her last chance to get the message across.
I have become more and more frustrated with my own writing because I keep making egregious errors that I only catch after a piece has been published or sent. I went to complain about how my Twitter feed is riddled with errors in a status update, but then had to delete the update because it too had an error. That really drove the point home.
The causes of my errors generally fall into a few categories:
- Rewrite that sentence, but only do it halfway. I write with the intention of revising rather than getting it right the first time. My goal is to hit a rhythm in whatever it is -- an e-mail, a blog post, a tweet -- and then go back to rearrange and shift things as needed. When I do this, I somehow will skip over very basic things, like making sure subjects and verbs agree, or that I have not left a piece of the former sentence randomly dropped in the middle of a paragraph.
- Careless or lazy typos. This one is the most frustrating, because "I know better" than to confuse its, it's, there, their, etc. I really, truly, know better. My brain slips, and I just fumble finger through it.
- Hitting "send" prematurely. Perhaps I am in a hurry to finish something up, or cannot give it my full attention. Either way, I send it along without even stopping to read through it. I often read e-mails that I sent in haste and wonder what kind of idiot the recipient thinks I must be.
I joke with anyone who points out one of my errors that I was a college newspaper editor, not a copy editor for a newspaper. The woman who held the dual role of chief copy editor and newspaper adviser to that organization can attest that I often made the same mistakes, and only she had a mental checklist to keep me from embarrassing myself in a column. When writing was the principle function of my job, I was more likely to focus on getting it right the first time. At least, I hope I did.
The truth is, writing is still the principle function of my job. If I were to total the number of words written in e-mails, tweets, search queries or personal notes, I have no doubt that it would equal the total written in an average day from my college years. Writing (and not screwing up in the process) is even more important now, as there is an entire subset of people that have no other means by which to communicate with me.
Even this post likely has a few errors in it. Feel free to light me up in the comments. I need to get a handle on it one way or another.