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A blog post of mine made it on the Hacker News front page. My blog post was mainly intended for a very, very small audience, but ended up getting around 20,000 views in one day. The most talked about topic in the comments was that I accidentally used:

"it's self" instead of "itself"

It was an honest mistake, and it didn't make the article unreadable.

I got comments like "mistakes like this are inexcusable" and "Once I read 'it's self' I stopped reading" and the harshest "why should we read your post if you can't take the time to proof it?" (although, I never asked anyone to read it, someone posted it on there)

My question is, just how important IS grammar and spelling.

For example:

"Altho im spelling this wrongly and im not using commas or apostrophes your still able to read this fine and completely understand itall."

And for words like "there", "they're" and "their", I know they have different meanings, but why does it matter if we have proof heteronyms work just fine?

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If your readers are complaining about grammar, spelling, punctuation and other things that can be caught by proofreading your content it is obviously important to them. If you aren't writing for your readers, why are you writing? If you are writing for your readers, what is important to them should be important to you. – MrHen Apr 11 '11 at 18:16
You know your mother's advice about always wearing clean underwear, because you never know? Well, it holds for writing, too. If you're writing something on the internet, assume that others will read it. Possibly 20,000 others. – Marthaª Apr 11 '11 at 18:21
@MrHen its not that i wasn't writing to my readers, it was that for this specific article, it was to a small group of people. It was on my posterous blog that was just shared with friends and colleagues. But even if it WAS for a larger audience, my question isn't about if my readers approve, it's, does it ACTUALLY matter or is it purely a snobbery issue. See my comment to Robusto. – Oscar Godson Apr 11 '11 at 18:27
It is three important. – Gleno Apr 11 '11 at 19:11

Note also the effect of a typo or two on this particular audience. Hacker News is going to, by definition, attract a great many Type-A personalities. In any assembly of 20,000 code geeks, some will perforce be quite anti-social and unforgiving of error. So you wound up playing to a very strict crowd.

Also, the kind of culture you see on code boards thrives on a certain kind of one-upmanship, whereby spotting and correcting errors is a measure of how social capital is awarded, and hierarchies constructed and enforced. Oddly enough, a place like ES is far more forgiving of typos and the occasional miss because language experts learn to pay little attention to such things - there are bigger peeves to hold on the one hand, and we'd quickly be exhausted if we elected to police the Internet for examples of poor grammar and spelling.

In the publisher and editor groups at Linked-In, for example, mistakes and errors in usage are generally ignored. People who correct the language of others are normally derided as boors. Indeed, unless there is some very pressing reason, one should only correct another's usage by request. But pressing reasons do arise.

If one Internet user capriciously awards a linguistic drubbing to another over some petty fault, Skitt's Law is in full effect, to wit: "Any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself" or "the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster."

In such cases where you can chide the chider, it's game on.

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+1, great answer. – Uticensis Apr 11 '11 at 21:49
The people on code boards who don't know that syntax trumps spelling and grammar aren't worth listening to anyway. Syntax errors, on the other hand, are completely inexcusable. – Ben Voigt Apr 11 '11 at 22:26
@Ben: Thanks for that link. I gave it a quick read. It really does show the mentality I'm talking about, full force, e.g.: "I did my best to get her removed from any place that might put her in actual contact with a computer, but there was no one with the taste or intelligence to get rid of her." The condescension drips from the page. These sorts of people have a very low tolerance for user error. – The Raven Apr 11 '11 at 23:57

So while researching this my friend pointed me to this Stephen Fry essay. He explains his reasoning amazingly well. http://vimeo.com/15412319

Long story short, it doesn't matter, and even goes as far as calling grammar nazis "losers". The only time he says it matters is if you are trying out for a job, but it doesn't actually matter.

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Adding only punctuation and not changing the spelling of any words, with the exception of promoting some lower-case letters to capital letters, the example from the original question can be altered from

"Altho im spelling this wrongly and im not using commas or apostrophes your still able to read this fine and completely understand itall."


"Altho I'm spelling this wrongly (and I'm not), using commas, or apostrophes your still, Able, to read this fine, and completely understand itall."

Because many words in English function in different parts of speech, it is important to spell and punctuate correctly to make it completely clear how each word is supposed to operate in a sentence.

For instance, the altered example has some definite problems. Why would the writer admit to incorrect spelling then parenthetically claim that they are not spelling incorrectly? Why did the writer misspell 'apostrophize' and why do they want to apostrophize my still? The writer makes reference to a fine that Able is trying to read, but there is no further information about that fine. Did Able receive that fine or is he reading a fine that was issued to someone else? Lastly, the final clause leaves the reader hanging. We read that Able is in need of 'something' in order to read a specific fine and to completely understand 'itall', but we are never told what that something is, nor are we certain what the misspelled word 'itall' means. It could be equally interpreted as a misspelling of the abbreviation of 'italics' or a misspelling of 'Italian.'

There may be evidence that people can correctly decipher bad writing most of the time, but that takes away from the true power of writing. What makes writing so powerful is its efficiency and clarity. If you remove those two things, you essentially render it useless.

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I think the difference is that there is a lot more context and less ambiguity in spoken language than in written. Writing is a crutch to cover over the fact that it took so long to invent the telephone, radio, recordings, etc. If those had come before writing, why would we have bothered to develop writing at all? So, writing has to make up for the fact that so much of the communication is missing, and thus it must be more precise. How many times have people explained that email and texts are very often misunderstood? It is not due to spelling errors in those cases! – no comprende Apr 20 at 20:04

May be this will be taken as a provocative statement but it's 95% true and only 5% provocative:

Grammar or Spelling mistakes are indispensable to the evolution of any language.

Just as DNA replication errors are indispensable to species adaptability.

Arguably, the typo you mention in your example is not a mere simplification but a real spelling error which you could easily have caught during proofing. My answer takes a broader standpoint though.

Today there are in Modern English over one hundred irregular verbs. In Old English, there are hundreds of them. Why do we have less today ? Because some irregularities were lost through errors.

Old English, like many Germanic or even Indo-European languages is a heavily inflected language. How comes that Modern English is not ? Centuries of approximate grammatical rules observance have seen to its simplification.

In one word, what is grammatical today was possibly not yesterday and will probably not be anymore tomorrow. That does not mean you have to write phonetically. That would actually take too much brainpower from the reader and, as you have experienced, bring about emotional reactions.

What I mean is that typos are a fact of life. I must confess I've produced more than my fair share of typos already in this forum and some people were kind enough to silently clean up the mess. With hindsight, reading their editions often makes me feel ashamed because some of my typos are indeed "unforgivable" (I could have noticed them), but on the other hand their corrections also allow me to progress because I wasn't suspecting most of the other ones. The only excuse I can find is that I was focusing on the meaning rather than the spelling. I can only swear to be more cautious next time and hopefully give them less work.

I wouldn't worry too much about the small proportion of people voicing their disapproval. They're probably too easily hurt and they still need to learn to get over imperfection.

Tolerance is not a favour you grant to others, it's a favour you do to yourself. Just because you cannot benefit from complementarity without accepting difference in the fist place. May be some people who interrupted their reading once they reached your typo were looking for some information that actually lied beyond that typo. They will never know. It's their choice. You've done your half of the job albeit imperfectly; it's up them to decide whether they are willing to do the other half, not necessarily perfectly either.

It reminds me of something they say here in Tunisia about tourists complaining too much

Sorry, Achmed, I'm desperate for some water, but I don't want to ride till the oasis: you're camel is too smelly !!!"

I wonder where this white bones we just passed came from !

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Allow me to politely disagree. It is not spelling errors that cause language to "evolve." Language is not DNA-like in this respect. Of course, we do see examples of errors become memetic, as with Internet traditions like "teh" and "pron" and "pwned." These variants will by no means supplant the standard forms, however. – The Raven Apr 12 '11 at 0:14
@The Raven, point taken - I probably have to rephrase this. Will do tomorrow. Thx. – Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 12 '11 at 0:23

"Altho im spelling this wrongly and im not using commas or apostrophes your still able to read this fine and completely understand itall."

But I'm having to read it more slowly, "translating" it into English by reattaching meanings that naturally sit elsewhere. I'm also out of breath by the time I get to the end!

There's a lot of material to read out there. If I'm going to spend some of my time reading it, I really don't want to have to waste time doing that extra translation step; I probably wouldn't even finish that sentence before moving on to something else. Your "it's self" typo is a much smaller beast, and wouldn't stop me unless it was the third or fourth small error to crop up in a short time.

Following the agreed (as in "This is what happens" rather than "This is what grammarians say should happen") rules helps you to communicate with other people. Breaking the rules, unless you do it carefully and knowingly, breaks that communication to some degree. That's why we follow them.

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I can't remember which writer I got this from (William Zinsser?), but: you, as a writer, must remove from the reader's view every distraction in your writing that you can.

You are taking your reader on a difficult trip, one in which you want their attention in a certain way, on a certain point, at a certain time, and nowhere else. The average human brain while reading is always, always, always, looking for something else to focus on. Odd bird calls, plastic bags wafting over the river, pixels shifting in the email window. We are an event-driven, interrupt-oriented people, and there are potential intrusions in every minute of every day.

When we read, we rely on the writer to help us tune those things out. Now, I know perfectly well this medium and the pace of new content it demands makes timely, spot-free writing almost impossible. Clear, clean, focus-riveting content takes time and careful editing, and even still, multiple passes to clear out the artifacts of hasty editing.

You see what happens otherwise. The good news is it's not printed in a way you can't address after release. Fix the error, thank readers for pointing it out, and move on.

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Thanks, exactly the type of response Im looking for :) – Oscar Godson Apr 11 '11 at 18:31
James Joyce?... – no comprende Apr 20 at 19:48

Language, written and spoken, is the tool we have with which to communicate. Both forms have commonly accepted rules and conventions (grammar, spelling, and syntax). The message I receive from a misspelled and ungrammatical piece of writing is that the author does not care if the writing communicates. That's my first turn-off. The message now needs to be deciphered, adding a step to the communication process for me, the reader. I've already gotten the impression that the author isn't particularly interested in communicating with me; this makes me that much more likely to leave the message unread.

Having said that, there's a certain amount of syntactic "noise" that I can and do tolerate. "It's self" doesn't present as much of a barrier to comprehension as your second example, which raises the comprehension bar to the point where I would skip it, assuming that the lack of rigor in the language reflects a corresponding lack of rigor in the thought.

My too cent's worth (sic).

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Obviously they're important enough to cause you some measure of distress. You can wander along oblivious of accepted English usage, blissfully unaware that such things are expected by the reading public, and then one day, bang, you get featured on a blog post and your whole world falls down.

Either you can accept the mockery or you can't. If you can't, learn to write better. If you can, why are you even writing about this here? Are you looking for sympathy or for permission to write substandard English?

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Well, my question is, does it actually matter? There's a lot of things people complain about that really don't matter. People used to use two spaces between periods, now they use one. Indenting paragraphs was important, now nearly nowhere outside of paper books is it done. I'm saying, is this a snobbery thing, or is there an actual point to. Of course writing like "Iz noing howz da pell portant?!?!?!" is too far. Im talking about spelling and grammar that doesn't affect the reading or understanding of written piece – Oscar Godson Apr 11 '11 at 18:22
No, the question is only "Does it actually matter to you?" If you don't mind that people think you are less intelligent than you actually are or that you don't get hired for jobs that require communication skills and so on, then that's a choice you can make and not be bothered by it. – Robusto Apr 11 '11 at 18:24
Their, they're have different meanings so might confuse the sentence. It's self / itself I would say is more on the level of a typo. I wouldn't worry about the rules for a possessive apostrophe on a name ending with 's'. And as for all the not splitting infinitives and "can't end a sentence with a preposition" = tell them to get a life! – mgb Apr 11 '11 at 18:27
Yup. There are conventions. @Oscar: Typography questions such as "Should I indent?" or "Is the interline that useful?" are a bit separated from a strictly language question like "I rite lyk dis". They are all there for a reason, for example, readableness (Actual or because it's "formal"). If your interline is too small, you'll make more effort to read, if it's too big, it will bother your reading. Same goes for indent (which must be used for letters about job application), etc. – Alenanno Apr 11 '11 at 18:31
A little bit off the point, but "it's self" = "it is self"; I don't see how this does not confuse the meaning of the sentence. – Kosmonaut Apr 11 '11 at 18:41

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