You Know Better Than That

In grade six, everyone thought I was smart.

I’m not smart. Anyone who watched me struggle through university can tell you that. Smart kids get scholarships. Smart kids ace exams. Smart kids get good grades. I’m not smart.

But in grade six, I was still doing alright in school, and people still thought I was smart. Especially my teacher, Mrs. Mainwood.

Every time I would hand in an assignment, or show her my homework, or answer a question, she would compliment me on how well I did. It was nice. When I gave a speech in front of the whole class one time, she asked if I would come back next year and present it again so that future students could see how it’s done. Nice.

Finally one day, something strange happened.

Mrs. Mainwood came to my desk to talk about some written assignment I’d handed in. She pointed at a bulleted list I had written. It looked like this:

  • some sentence about the assignment
  • another sentence
  • and another

The content was fine, and the rest of the assignment was fine, but she was really upset about this bulleted list. Why?

Because it had no capitalization or punctuation.

That was it. And apparently it was very important. She was furious! She went on a rant that I’m sure the rest of the class could easily hear. I still remember the exact words that ended her tirade: “You know better than that.”

I didn’t understand what she meant at the time; I probably just apologized and fixed my mistake. (I’m an apologetically easy-going guy). But I understand now. It was a big deal.

It looked stupid.

It was an eyesore on an otherwise flawless page. And you know what? Mrs. Mainwood was right. I did know better. My list looked careless, but I cared about what I was saying. See the problem?

I’m sick of seeing tweets and Facebook posts written in all lower-case letters. Questions that don’t end with question marks. Paragraphs where every thought is laid out between mangled ellipsis instead of real sentences.

I’m not talking about imperfect grammar. English is a messy language, I get that. Plurals and spelling are often non-obvious, especially for non-native speakers, and even native speakers break the rules sometimes. We’re forgiven.

But everyone — everyone — knows that sentences start with a capital letter, and end with some sort of symbol. No fancy rules, no special cases. It’s one of the first things we learn while becoming literate.

So if you’re one of those people who’s social network feed is devoid of periods, capital letters, and apostrophes, please do better. I know you have it in you. Your lack of basic grammar is distracting from your message, and it’s driving people like me and Mrs. Mainwood crazy.

You don’t have to be smart to get this right.

You know better than that.

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4 Responses to “You Know Better Than That”

  1. Caroline Says:

    What a great way to articulate such an important point! I believe that proper grammar and punctuation are two of the easiest ways to make people interested in what you have to say! I’ve gained a reputation at work as the person ‘who can write’ and I’m sure that at least 50% of it is avoiding run on sentences and knowing when to use a comma or quotations. Great article, Dan!

  2. dan Says:

    Thanks Caroline!

    Having a reputation as a good writer is really, really useful. If you were at a small company, they would be asking you to tweet and blog for them — and I bet you’d do a totally awesome job!

    The first blog post I ever wrote was for work, and I wrote it because my boss pushed me to do it. He would never have done so if I hadn’t shown some promise as a decent writer, and if that never happened, I might have never started this blog. So it works! Keep writing!

  3. Grant Lucas Says:

    Alllllright alright. I confess. I’m a person, who in the past few years, has gotten really lax with capitalization.

    I do completely agree with the post, and I would like to let you know that, now a few days later, whenever I’m writing anything, Twitter post, commit message, this post is chiming in the back of my mind. I then go back and fix the capitalization mistakes made.

  4. dan Says:

    Commit messages is a great example of when this sort of stuff matters. I actually had a small section about programming in my original draft that I took out because it didn’t match the rest of the post. Other examples were:

    – Semicolons in JavaScript/Ruby.
    – Coherent code comments.
    – Consistent tab indentation.

    None of this stuff matters to the compiler, but it matters to the people reading the code! Or in your case, the commit log ;)

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