Imagine, if you will, a conversation:
Joe: Hey Sam, can you take a look at this new form for our website? I need your wordsmithing expertise.
Sam: Sure, buddy.
Joe: Great. Here are my questions. Should “Shipping Policy” be capitalized in “Read our Shipping Policy for more details”? Also, should we italicize it, since it’s name of a page? Or use double quotation marks?
Sam: Great questions, pal! Hmm, let’s see. (Clicks around to a few online authorities.) Looks like this expert recommends downstyle—so let’s capitalize “Shipping,” but not “policy.” And this other expert suggests we use bolding instead of italics. Does that help?
Joe: Yes! Thank you! I knew you’d know where to find the answers.
Sam: Sure thing, chum. But—hang on. I see a line on this form I don’t completely understand. “Enter whirligig code for cretacious widget.” What does that mean?
Joe: (Shrugs.) I dunno. The developer put it in there, so I figure it’s there for a reason. (Walks away.)
Sam: (Scratches head.)
Wow, you’re thinking. What an odd exchange! That wouldn’t happen in real life. It’s so silly.
And yet. And yet.
It happens to me far too often. A client or co-worker will express great concern over a fine detail like punctuation, and complete obliviousness to huge problems with readability and coherence. I see both writers and non-writers do this.
Our obsession with syntax
Of course, I’m familiar with the idea of folks being consumed by a passion for syntax. I am those folks, after all. I’m a punctuation obsessive. I’ve read Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.
Then, a month ago, I really took notice.
In my SXSW presentation on March 11, as I spoke about how non-writers can get better at writing, I showed some examples of what I think is pretty decent web copy written by designers. A couple of the examples had typos in them. I didn’t think it was a big deal.
Some in my audience disagreed.
One woman took me aside afterward and strongly cautioned me against such syntactical insouciance. “It destroys credibility!” she said. Others said the same thing via Twitter.
What I’m not saying
Look, anyone who knows me at all knows there’s nothing I love better than a good grammar debate. I wrote an entire blog post about how typos make you look like a hack. I freaked out when a co-worker innocently declared that a period should always precede two spaces. I have a long history of sticking up for the serial comma.
I’m not saying that punctuation and grammar don’t matter. For goodness’ sake. As if we needed web content to be messier.
I’m just saying it’s not the most important thing. And sometimes, we treat it as if it is.
Leave those deck chairs alone; the boat is sinking
I know you don’t want to hear this. But I’m going to say it anyway:
- When was the last time you were really confused by a misplaced comma?
- When was the last time you saw a hyphen instead of an em-dash, and you left the site in frustration?
- When was the last time a missing Oxford comma cost you money?
For me, the answer is “not recently, if ever.”
- When was the last time unclear writing confused you, and you left the site in frustration?
- When was the last time you couldn’t understand what a web form was asking for?
- When was the last time you couldn’t find a web page because the site’s navigation was poorly labeled?
Was it last week? Yesterday? This morning? Five minutes ago? Because if I know anything, it’s that those of us who spend any time on the web have these problems daily.
Why do we do this? Why do we argue about leading, apostrophes, and Comic Sans, when we don’t even understand what our words are trying to communicate?
1. We do it because it’s easy
For us word-nerdy types, it’s easy to remember the rules in English that govern apostrophes. Simple. Black and white. We see a sign that says “Kellys’ Bakery” and we snicker because our brains instantly recognize the error.
What’s more, these missteps annoy us because we can’t turn off the spellchecker in our brains. So when we see a typo, we jump on it. We shout defiantly, “This represents everything that’s wrong in the world!”
We think if we could enforce typographic correctness everywhere then maybe, just maybe, in this messy, disappointing, scary, unpredictable life, something would be perfect, beautiful, and orderly.
2. We do it because it feeds our egos
Not everyone is like us. Some folks can’t remember the rules about apostrophes. Some don’t know what an em-dash is. Heck, some of these people never even diagrammed a sentence in school.
But we have! We know all this stuff! Sure, maybe our six-figure humanities degrees and hours analyzing Joyce and Faulkner go unappreciated in this world of $2 blog posts. But goshdarnit, we know how to use a semicolon. We deserve recognition!
3. We do it because the alternative is difficult and messy
What is a “cretacious widget”? What would our readers call it? Does it need a place on the form? Should it go in its current spot, or somewhere else on the form? Is there anything the form isn’t explaning, that it should?
These are hard questions. They require us to push through the cognitive discomfort of knowing there’s a question that needs asking, but not knowing what it is. They require meticulous research and systematic questioning. They require us to look stupid by asking some engineer what cretacious means. Sometimes, more than one engineer.
And yet, these questions must be dealt with.
Do the right thing, not the easy thing
When we’re really doing our jobs, we’re more than the keepers of commas. We’re the “finders of lost users,” as Clay Delk has said.
Yes, typographical correctness has value. But let’s spend less time arguing about the finer points of correct punctuation, typography, spelling, and grammar, and more time advocating for the user. You know, the guy who buys things from us. Or would, if he could find and understand them.
It’s time to step out of the world of black and white answers: italics here, caps there, bold here, single-space there.
It’s time to spend a little less time arguing about how many ellipses can dance on the head of a pin, and more time thinking like the user who is not, in fact, proofreading our writing, but who is actually trying to understand what it’s saying.