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There Are 3 Thing’s Wrong With This Head Line

This guest post is by Greg McFarlane of Control Your Cash

As a blogger, you expect your readers to give you their valuable time that they could be spending elsewhere. If you’re going to ask that much of them, don’t they deserve your best effort in return?

When your posts are loaded with spelling and grammar mistakes, you’re telling your readers one or both of two things:

  1. I can’t be bothered to learn the language I’ve chosen to communicate in.
  2. My content is so vital and compelling that its form is unimportant.

Democratization has its advantages, and alas, its drawbacks. 572 years ago, Johann Gutenberg was the only person on Earth who could have his words disseminated en masse. (And even he was but the messenger, merely spreading others’ divinely inspired works.) Today, anyone with a Return key and an opinion can search for an audience. Does that mean that you deserve one?

Look at the most popular blogs, the ones with critical acclaim, and/or a large readership. Technorati lists The Huffington Post, Hot Air, several members of the Gawker family, Mashable and TechCrunch among its top 20. Even the inane TMZ is on the list. Regardless of how you feel about left-wing politics, right-wing politics, general snarkiness, social media news, technology or the lives of celebrities, all the blogs on the list have something in common that also-ran blogs don’t.

Proper, comprehensible English, delivered in sentences that you don’t have to reread to make sense of. In 2011, with so much of the world’s knowledge available to any of us, it’s astounding that there exist bloggers who’ve advanced past adolescence yet still don’t know that plurals don’t take apostrophes.

When I decry this (I’m the kind of person who thinks that Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson deserve their own Nobel Prize category), I’m often met with the standard responses. These fall into three categories:

  1. I didn’t have time.
  2. Who cares?
  3. (No response at all.)

In other words, correct English isn’t that important. My one-word response to that is: garbage.

Unlike most topics of debate, there’s no room for difference of opinion on this one. People on the other side of this issue are like those who defend flat earth theory or who argue that thiomersal causes autism. There’s no reasoning with them. To disagree here is to say that sloppiness and ignorance are of no consequence. That insulting your readers is fine. That the rules of discourse don’t apply to you.

If your defence is that you’re not some fancy-pants academic who obsesses over a set of archaic rules about how to communicate, maybe you should find something to do that doesn’t involve words.

One irony is that non-native English speakers are behind some of the most grammatically sound (and thus most readable) blogs out there. Take Aloysa of Aloysa’s Kitchen Sink. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear she’d been writing in and speaking English her whole life. English is her third language, after Lithuanian and Russian. I’d cite examples of the opposite, native English speakers who each write like a cat walking on a keyboard, but they’re easy to find. Besides, I made enough enemies with my last ProBlogger post.

My site, Control Your Cash, hosts the weekly Carnival of Wealth. It’s a blog carnival in which I showcase what are ostensibly the best and most thought-provoking personal finance articles of the prior seven days. I need about 30 entrants for the carnival to be of a decent length. If I limited entry to those who spell and punctuate correctly, even if they had nothing interesting to say about their subject of choice, I’d be lucky to run three posts a week. The carnival would be less of a carnival and more of a quiet evening playing chess at the library.

I’m not talking about being able to articulate the difference between the pluperfect progressive tense and the ablative case. I’m talking about, at a minimum, activating and using the spelling and grammar features that come with MS Word, or Apple Pages, or whichever word processor you create your magic with. If you don’t know that you need to do this, then you almost certainly do. No thought is so profound that it can’t benefit from the right presentation. If you can think it and type it out, then you can spend a few minutes making it readable before you decide to unleash it on the universe.

This isn’t about you. It almost never is. It’s about your customers, i.e. your readers. They’re literate enough to have navigated their way to your site, and deserve to be written to in a clear, syntactically correct manner. Otherwise, why should they care about what you have to say?

Greg McFarlane is an advertising copywriter who lives in Las Vegas. He recently wrote Control Your Cash: Making Money Make Sense, a financial primer for people in their 20s and 30s who know nothing about money. You can buy the book here (physical) or here (Kindle) and reach Greg at [email protected].

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Comments

  1. Fritz says:

    I agree wholeheartedly and will make a point of paying more attention to the language on my blog. I do write in a very informal style, but I agree that it at the very least needs to be easy to read. Nice piece :)

    • hahhahaaha, i am totally agree with, in the 1st look i was skipping this blog but when i saw this post and then i read whole post and i could not find this thing.

  2. Geoserv says:

    Are you kidding me? ProBlogger published this? While I understand the sentiment, give me a break! This is not as big a deal as the above makes it out to be.

  3. jn says:

    Thing’s should be Things
    Head Line should be Headline

    What’s the third problem? Am I simply an idiot who can’t see it? Is it the “incomprehensible” bit?
    Should it be rewritten as “Three things are wrong with this headline” ?

    • Ava Jae says:

      If I got it right…

      1) “Thing’s” should be “Things”

      2) Head Line should be “Headline”

      3) “Are,” “With” and “This” should be “are,” “with” and “this.”

      So it should be rewritten as: “Three Things are Wrong with this Headline.”

      That’s my interpretation, at least.

      • Initially I thought the third thing wrong was that it stated that there were three and not two things wrong, which would be very clever and amusing.

        The capitalisation of a headline is a choice of a typographical style, one way or the other is not necessarily wrong—although beginning each word with a capital letter can look awkward. No matter which style of headline capitalisation is chosen it should remain consistent throughout the publication. I see that ProBlogger does indeed use the style in which Ava rewrote the headline.

        Some style guides would say that ’3′ ought to be replaced with the word ‘three’ (like Ava did) so maybe there are 4 mistakes!

        Finally, if the headline is corrected as, ‘There are Three Things are Wrong with this Headline’ it no longer makes sense—perhaps the full correction should read, ‘There is Nothing Wrong with this Headline’.

      • Michael says:

        “Are” is a verb and most style guides have all verbs capitalized in titles.

    • “With” should not be capitalized. Prepositions and articles are not capitalized in titles except in special circumstances.

  4. Stefano says:

    You’re right. But English speakers should consider how much complicated can be for non English native speakers to use the English dominated internet with a perfect English.
    People like me who likes to develop plugins and share with others are constrained to use English even if they was not teached when young and when it was simpler to learn it.
    I have a family, a regular work, I want to write plugins and share them… but I need to document them in English. And not only my English is very basic, not only my time is limited but there is a worse issue: being not an English-native when I write I have no instict to find errors.
    When I write in Italian I see errors suddenly, I “hear” them. In English, errors are the result fo thinking about grammar rules.
    Internet forces us to use English even when our english is far than good… so English quality on internet will be poor and it will takes decades to get better.

    I have an idea: I’ll launch a “non English native – be patience” stamp for people like me! :-)

  5. Oh the irony! I guess Greg was so busy trying to impress people with his big vocabulary (Democratization, pluperfect, syntactically) that he forgot to proofread his post for grammar. In a blog about not making grammatical mistakes, the author makes a basic one. In high school I was taught that good grammar does not end a sentence with a preposition (e.g. you create your magic with.) If it were grammatically correct it would read “with which you create your magic.”

    Other than that minor faux paux, I actually like the post. In a world when people attempt to communicate with 140 characters or less, it is nice to see someone stand up for those of us who like to read well-written prose. I just do not think that it was written at an 8th grade reading level. People who are not as educated as Greg are bound to take offense.

    This post reminds me of something else I read several months about proof-reading. A good article should be proof-read 3 times. The first time through the author should check for spelling mistakes and type-os. The second time through the author should look for grammatical mistakes. The third time through the author should look to eliminate jargon and words that an 8th grader would have trouble with unless they are writing a “scientific” piece to be read by a specific audience.

    • @jn:

      I’m sorry, that was something of a mind-screw. The third thing wrong with the headline is that it miscounts the number of errors in itself. I can’t remember, but I think I borrowed that idea from the American author and logician Raymond Smullyan.

      @Tim Barnes, CLU:

      It’d be awfully petty of me to point out your curious spelling of “faux pas” and hyphenation of “type-o”, so I won’t.

      I didn’t think “democratization and “syntactically” were all that challenging, and I specifically used “pluperfect” to make a derisive point that pokes fun at using insider jargon. But I’m more concerned with the forest than the trees: there’s a difference between reading a post line-by-line looking for a single unconventional usage, and being bombarded by spelling mistake after spelling mistake. Thanks for your comment.

      @Stefano:

      Grazie per i vostri commenti!

      Agreed. I should have qualified my comments. I was criticizing bloggers whom I know are native English speakers, yet still use poor grammar. I would never mean to criticize someone who’s doing his best to communicate in a foreign language. Still, if you’re going to sell your product to the English-speaking world, it would help to find a native speaker who can take your words (which, I see from reading your site, are not bad at all) and fix the errors.

      • Tim reminds me of how smug I feel when someone accuses me of using superfluous language, when it’s really the way I talk to my kids at home. Yea, we’re pretty erudite that way.

      • P.S. Actually, there are three errors. :) “With” (and other prepositions of four or fewer letters (unless the first or last word of the title)) are generally not capitalized. Hey, I didn’t write the rules!

        P.P.S. Don’t know if it’s still in print, but Fumblerules is the best grammar book I have ever read.

      • Lucas says:

        “The third thing wrong with the headline is that it miscounts the number of errors in itself.”

        aaahh… Greg, that’s brilliant :-)

    • Jean Gogolin says:

      Do you remember Churchill’s comment about not ending a sentence with a preposition? That it was a rule up with which he would not put?

  6. @Geoserv: I disagree. Every single time I come across a spelling or grammar mistake, I discount the author’s message to some extent – even if, translated from the bad spelling/grammar, the content is excellent! I’ll overlook obvious typos in immediately interactive milieux and deliberately making a point with seeming errors, and some leeway for writing in a non-native language, but that’s all.

    I react like this even with Tweets! It’s possible to use shortening techniques (e.g. “4″ for “for” or “U” for “you”) to fit the limits of the form without looking stupid. (I do try hard not to use those, though, as I find them distracting, and I especially avoid L3375p3@k – it’s just obnoxious.)

  7. Tom Ewer says:

    I disagree. Proper spelling, punctuation and grammar *should* be vital. I personally think it is. A lot of people disagree, but a slippery road awaits if we start thinking that it doesn’t matter if your writing form is poor.

    Kudos to ProBlogger for not just publishing another bog-standard “here’s how to attract 1,000 visitors to your blog” post. The fundamentals are always more important.

  8. Ava Jae says:

    I absolutely 100% agree that proper spelling, punctuation and grammar are important. I haven’t even stopped following a blog because of a typo (nor will I) but when a blog post is riddled with poor grammar and terrible spelling errors, it looks highly unprofessional and if it gets to the point of distracting, I’ll stop reading.

    It’s not that difficult to run a spell-check and double-check your grammar. If you couldn’t bother to take the time to do that, why should your readers bother to take the time to read your post?

  9. Dewan says:

    I’m not a grammar buff, but I understand the need to proofread. However, the author of this post spelled “defense” as “defence,” which is only correct in British English. Since the rest of the post is in American English I’ll assume it’s a mistake, or maybe he’s trying to make a point.

  10. Summer Said says:

    Not only do I care intensely about the proper grammar, spelling and diction on my blog or anything else I write for that matter; website copy, print media, etc., I won’t even send a truncated, misspelled or trite text message! I despise the slaughter of all innocent creatures, including the wonderful English lexicon. I imagine in a few years anyone possessing the ability to actually write in clear, concise and intelligent phrases, will be considered something of a genius with some innate mystical talent that turns thoughts and ideas into fully developed sentences! Hell, we might even get burned at the stake!

  11. Andi says:

    Preach it, brother!

    I don’t mind a typo here and there, and I’m fine with writing in a casual style that doesn’t follow every rule, but only if the rule-breaking is intentional. I thought everybody knew the basic rules of grammar until I started receiving emails from colleagues (or worse, management!) in the mid-90s that were riddled with errors.

    Unfortunately, I think proper grammar is like always being on time. No one appreciates it because no one sees it!

  12. Mind the language and readers will mind your blog.

  13. rquiles says:

    I agree with this post. I read and re-read my posts before publishing; but me being a new blogger I know I have miles to go before I feel somewhat confident of my writing skills. But I thank you for this article.

  14. The third issue is the numeral “3″ in the headline. According to AP Stylebook, numerals less than 10 should be spelled out.

    • You’re right, Beth. So we actually have four things wrong — which makes five things wrong.

      1. Thing’s = Things
      2. Head Line = Headline
      3. With = with
      4. 3 = Three
      5. Three = Four

      Heh heh.

  15. Proof read and proof read again! Of course the occasional error will sneak through but you really do see some shockers from time to time. The one that gets me is the there/their/they’re and your/you’re issue. And let’s not get started on apostrophes of possession and contraction.

  16. James Greg says:

    Use of correct English is really essential to convey your message to the public in its true form or else everyone will derive his own meaning and hence the original message will have changed by far. The post clearly describes the effects if not used correct grammar and spellings. Excellent post a little bit of refreshing never hurt anybody.

  17. Totally agree with the points of the article! But I gotta ask, did you mean to spell defence that way? It’s correct if you’re British, but not if you’re using American English.

  18. Write concisely too.

  19. Jeff Snider says:

    “Proper, comprehensible English, delivered in sentences that you don’t have to reread to make sense of.”

    Oops.

  20. As a foreigner to the English language, I’ve made the observation that many native speakers don’t really speak it. But on the other hand: if everyone were perfect, we would be average! (The horror! The horror!)

  21. This is a good reminder that writers should use correct spelling and grammar. I agree with Michael P and others that sloppy and error-filled writing reduces one’s credibility. However, I also agree that non-native speakers of English should not be held to the same rigid standard, even though many of them write wonderfully clear and correct English.

    @Tim, “In high school I was taught that good grammar does not end a sentence with a preposition (e.g. you create your magic with.) If it were grammatically correct it would read “with which you create your magic.”

    We’ve all had this drummed into our heads, but sometimes following the rule gets quite awkward. Winston Churchill once famously responded to an awkwardly-worded memo by saying, “This is something up with which I will not put.”

  22. Grant Hughes says:

    While Grammar and spelling errors can irk me especially if there are many I find I get much more irked with posts like this where the author tries to over write his audience to show his vocabulary skills…The three things wrong with the headline can be forgivable as long as the information given is good…but when you try to impress the masses with your vocabulary and grammar prowess you will definitely distance your readers to some extent.

  23. Guy Hogan says:

    A blogger deals with language. Words are the tools of the trade. A blogger who does not learn the proper use of the tools of the trade should find another trade.

  24. @Everyone who observed “defence”:

    I split the difference. My editor is Australian, I’m American, and ProBlogger has readers across the globe. In my initial draft there were two words that could have gone either way: I spelled “democratization” in the American fashion, “defence” in the Commonwealth one. On my own blog I don’t have the luxury of an editor, but here at ProBlogger she chose to leave those spellings intact.

  25. I could not agree with this article more if I tried. I know that I’m not perfect and occasionally I may let a misspelled word get past me, etc. But I try my best to write correctly and clearly and as my blog is geared mostly at young or new writers, I encourage them to do that as well.

    In this day and age of “text speak” (even in forums that allow for more than 140 characters per thought), it’s very nice to see someone still fighting for correct grammar.

  26. Simply smart move Greg. I love the third error that’s amazing. Its both ignorance and carelessness that makes bloggers to ignore the importance of the language they’re communicating with :) Nice and important reminder, thanks.

  27. As a wordsmith, I am especially critical of written mistakes by people offering writing advice. None of us can ever be perfect, but when it’s something fundamental or several problems occur in the course of one piece, I want to tear my hair out. Instead, I just stop reading and click away–not the desired reaction.

  28. grrrr, yes grrrr. Whilst my English is by no means perfect, I abhor reading something that is poorly written and full of “your” rather than “you’re” types of errors. As a previous comment stated – I don’t give as much weight to the poorly written opinion as I would to the grammatically correct opinion. Maybe that makes me a snob, but that’s your opinion.

    It may well be that the poor sot who is trying to express himself using the written word did very poorly in his English studies in school, but excelled at Math! However, if you create your posts using MS Word for example, you can do a grammar and spelling check before uploading to your blog platform. In WordPress, there is a spell checker which is very convenient. I haven’t investigated this, but there may also be a plugin you can use that will check grammar.

    I’m ranting like a blithering idiot, having already made my point – I dislike posts that are full of mistakes (grammatical & spelling). I give less credence to those that are, just as I do when I read the newspaper… This is truly a shame because the person who is trying to share information with me may well have some very valid points, but my blinders go up so fast that I may well miss the points altogether. ‘Nuf said.

    Jane Porterfield

  29. Alan Needham says:

    When I encounter poorly written content with more than one obvious spelling or grammatical error, it changes my perception of the author’s credibility. If the content creator doesn’t take the time to at least run a quick spell check, how can I have confidence that they took the time to get the facts straight in their article?

  30. Tanja says:

    To me, the reason for using correct spelling and grammar isn’t to follow rules for the sake of following rules, but to make sure your meaning is as clear as possible for your readers.

    After all, the less time and brain-bandwidth someone has to spend reading and re-reading what you’ve written to make sense of it, the more time they have to absorb and think about your message.

    So grammar as I’ve been taught it is less about avoiding split infinitives, sentence fragments or prepositions-at-the-end-of-a-sentence, and more about making sure you’re clear, unambiguous and easy to understand.

    Part of that involves writing in the language your readers use: whether that be formal or informal. But I think it’s fair to say that if you’re writing for a business audience, typos, mispunctuations and confusing grammar are NOT going to add to your credibility.

  31. jezza101 says:

    I disagree.

    The problem with a prescribed approach to linguistics is that no one approach can possibly cater for all regions or classes within society.

    For example, if you follow the rules very formally you are likely to appeal to the “upper class” of society. This is no good if you are trying to appeal to the youth sector. Forget “your” vs “you’re” these guys write “ur”!

    The prescribed approach fails to allow for the evolution of language, whether you like it or not English is evolving and changing – perhaps faster than ever before. Unfortunately those that take a formal approach are fighting a losing battle – I don’t really have to argue the counter case for it to happen, I just need to sit back and observe it occur before my eyes!

    • jezza101, augh! I have homeschooled my six kids, so I definitely “appeal to the youth sector.” IMO, dumbing down language for them just makes them dumber. (And I’ve got one kid in grad school and two college undergrads right now to back that up. The other three are still under high school age.)

      The topic irritates me so much that I started a blogging grammar series on one of my blogs just to get it off my chest! I don’t think we need to be über picky. But having a reasonable standard in language isn’t a bad idea — and it’s not a “losing battle” at all!

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