Grammar Police, Arrest This Man

There is an alternate universe somewhere in which I am a lexicographer. I write dictionaries for a living. This is not the pipe dream of a grammar-obsessed former English teacher. Right out of grad school (Master's in English), I turned down an opportunity to work for the Oxford English Dictionary. The job was for a specialist in Caribbean dialects of English. It sounded fantastic. The OED recruiters made clear this was not a stepping stone job for editors and writers. Being a lexicographer leads only to being a better, more experienced lexicographer. Instead, I took a job that involved writing and technology and pop culture, and my life was set on its course. But in an alternate world, I made a different choice and took the dictionary job, and now I sit in a dark apartment in Manhattan mumbling to myself about the horror of language on the Internet.

I'm not talking about the commenters. I'm not talking about laypeople. I'm talking about professionals who are paid to write for a living. Especially technology journalists. There are many, many excellent writers out there who work in technology. I hope they do very well, and I hope you read them thoroughly. But there are also many, perhaps a slim majority of writers, who write with prose that is simply messy, imprecise, and overwrought. I think it is a problem endemic to more than just their technology stories. The problem, at its core, is a way of thinking about how to publish on the Internet.

On the Web, you need to publish quickly if you want to succeed. This isn't because readers remember who broke a story. Ask the average reader who got the scoop on the latest piece of iPhone jetsam to emerge from the Chinese black markets, and you're likely to be met with a blank stare.

Even Techmeme gets it wrong, often. Techmeme republishes the most popular technology stories on the Web. Ideally, the writer who reported the story first will show up as the top link. All the Web sites who sourced that story get pushed beneath. That's how it should be. But Techmeme often puts third-hand stories above first- and second-hand reporting. Techmeme offers a ton of traffic, especially for the top links in each topic. But publishing first does not guarantee those clicks.

[aquote]Why publish so quickly? Google knows[/aquote]

So why publish so quickly? Why rush the story out the door without a proper copy edit? One word: Google. Even when Techmeme doesn't know where a story came from, Google knows. Google search results tend to prioritize stories that came out first. Even better, Google takes into account how many other stories are linking back to the original. So, if you report on something first, even a minute earlier than the competition, you might get better Google placement.

If you want to make a living running a technology blog, you need to appear on the first page of Google search results. Return readership and feed subscribers certainly matter. But to many sites, especially smaller, up-and-coming sites, the search results will pay the bills for years while the site builds a following.

Speed is therefore of the essence. This comes at the cost of copy editing. Copy editors make everything better. They polish the prose to make it shine, without losing the author's voice. They write headlines that are engaging and accurate. If you read a story about a gadget that is based entirely on a leak or rumor, and the headline says "Confirmed," you can guarantee no copy editor wrote that. That was written by an editor focused more on clicks and dollars, not words and meaning.

For a very, very brief time I was a copy editor for a Web site run by the editors of PC Magazine. This was at the height of the dotcom crash. I was told that our unique project was funded for at least a year. Then I saw copy editors in other departments getting laid off. Some were rehired part time, on an hourly scale and without benefits. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, a payday in fact, I was called into a meeting with the boss. Friday afternoon meetings are always bad news. When they happen on a payday, you should probably pack up your desk before the meeting starts, just to save time. Trust me, I know from repeat experience.

The real problem is that many sites care much more about clicks than content. There are some sites I read that are simply wrong. They get everything wrong. They report rumors, then "confirm" those rumors, and by the time those rumors have been revealed as false, they have already moved on to the next big thing. I see these sites quoted and sourced over and over again, even though their accuracy percentage hovers in the low single digits.

Why are they still thriving? Speed. Clicks. Why bother asking a company for a response to a query? You usually know what they will say, especially when it has to do with unannounced devices. (Disclosure: In my day job I work in PR for Samsung Mobile). Wait for a response and you'll be passed by all of the sites that didn't bother. Take the time for accuracy and you'll be out of business, while smaller sites report whatever they like with impunity.

If accuracy is a casualty of the need for fast posting, then grammar, usage, and spelling concerns are barely an afterthought. I know quite a few writers who complain frequently that their warnings about proper English and good writing go completely unheeded. Heck, I was one of those writers. I wrote for a site run by a very intelligent Norwegian who spoke a confused and somewhat garbled English as his second language. We never edited copy, I just did my best to get it right the first time. But management explicitly placed no value at all in proper English. Now the site is gone, vanished into the ether. Old stories don't even show up in Google search results. There's irony for you.

[aquote]Poor writing will fall heavy on your ears if you cherish the language[/aquote]

How do we fix the problem? Easy. Avoid the worst offenders. Hopefully your instincts have already pushed you away from them. Even if you aren't a grammar professional, poor writing will fall heavy on your ears if you enjoy and cherish the language.

Point out mistakes. Always. As a writer, I hate it when readers point out grammar errors in comments. But I'm mostly angry with myself for letting a mistake slip through. Harp on poor grammar on your favorite sites long enough, and they will start to take the problem seriously on an institutional level.

Most of all, though, reward good writing. Read the longer stories. You probably read 3-4 stories about the same topic, anyway. Instead, find the Web site that writes the longer version, and stick to that one. Tell them you appreciate their command of the language. Everybody reads comments. Writers, editors, bosses.

Finally, if you're a writer, reread your own work. You would be amazed how many writers ignore this. When seconds matter, and delays cost money, it seems a waste of time to proofread. Here's how I motivate myself to reread. I tell myself that if I can't bear to read this story again, a story I wrote, how could I expect a stranger to read it even once? I cannot.

We all make mistakes. I've made plenty. English is a malleable and forgiving language. I'm not asking for perfection, I just think our profession would be a better place, with more accuracy and less nonsense, if we took the language as seriously as we take the topic.