Fiddling with spelling shibboleths while the economy burns

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As I write these words, the number of comments posted below Kyle Wiens's strangely contentless piece in Harvard Business Review, "I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why", is just coasting up toward 1200 (yes, one thousand two hundred; that's not a typo). This cannot be out of any enthusiasm for grammar: the number of grammar issues mentioned in the piece is zero. Wiens says or implies that he wants employees who know the difference between apostrophes and apostles; between semicolons and colons; between to and too; between its and it's; and between their, there, and they're. But this isn't about grammar; these are just elementary vocabulary and spelling distinctions. How could it possibly be of interest to Harvard Business Review readers that the CEO of a technical documentation company expects his employees to be able to spell different words differently? I like literacy too, but why this fiddling with spelling shibboleths while the economy burns?

It is staggering that by lunchtime on Wednesday around 1200 readers had already found this feeble piece interesting enough to comment on [and it was up above 1400 by Thursday morning]. I tired very rapidly as I browsed the comments; they were unusually dire. Some just expressed hostility ("You are a bastard!!" said one). Others fangirled ("I think I love you"). Many wanted to best the author by correcting his grammar (several simpletons explained solemnly that prepositions should never end sentences, though in fact Wiens had hyperlinked his only sentence-final preposition to an article explaining that this is not a grammar error; the simpletons hadn't clicked). . . I began to look forward to the comments (more than one) that simply reveled in the fact that the blogging software's automatic URL generation had given Wiens a URL containing "people_who_use_poo".

I've noticed the same phenomenon before: All you have to do is mention grammar in a moderately conservative location, like a Harvard Business School blog or the Telegraph or the Daily Mail in the UK, and you will get enthusiastic but vapid comments rolling in not just in the hundreds but into the thousands. And hardly any of them know what they're talking about. There will be people who seriously believe in absurd fictional rules; dopes who repeat silly points that have been made hundreds of times before but still get repeated even under the threat of death; softheads who assure us that the main thing is communication so grammar doesn't really matter; grouches who just want to air pet word-confusion peeves; folk who merely want a platform to affirm that they hate the author or love him . . . The debate is, in a word, pathetic.

I have come to the conclusion that the value and content of a blog post on grammar is inversely related to the number of comments below it. And that would mean that if my own posts are good, they should attract extremely low numbers of comments. Take a look at how many Kyle Wiens has right now, and compare with how many you see here below. My earnest hope is that you'll see a huge difference.

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