Thinking much too hard about a lower case ‘h’

05 Nov 2009 0

I received a text message today from the National Blood Service. It reads as follows:

hi, really hope you can give blood again… see our mailing or visit our website for details… thanks for your support!

I’m guessing the nice people at the NBS wanted me to respond by thinking, “I’d better go and give blood again sharpish!” But, being a loser, I actually thought, “Why have they used a lower case ‘h’ and a ‘…’ instead of full stop?” I don’t think it was an accident – I think someone in the NBS’s communications department has made a decision that I would be more likely to forfeit my lunch break to have blood siphoned out of my arm if they talked to me in lower case with questionable punctuation.

Fuddy duddies and curmudgeons will see this as yet more evidence of dumbing down, and the impending death of the art of writing. But this rather heartening post which I stumbled across last week offers another view, citing a study from Stanford University to claim that the youth of today exchange more written communication than any previous generation. Professor Andrea Lunsford reckons we’re “in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilisation”. Wow. That’s good to hear because it annoys me when people say that civilisation is doomed just because kids are saying omg wtf ttyl lol.

But then, like a lot of people, I’m a massive hypocrite on this one. I laugh at my girlfriend for getting annoyed when her friends don’t punctuate their text messages properly, but secretly I feel pretty much the same way. The really important thing about spelling, punctuation and grammar is that, as well as making your meaning clear, they send out a message between the lines. If you confuse an onion with a union, that might ruin your bolognese/employment tribunal hearing – but it’s not actually very often that mistakes like that obscure what you’re trying to say. It’s just that they give the wrong impression – that you’re not very bright, that you’re careless, that you don’t respect the person you’re talking to, that you’re being too casual…

Some of this, of course, is just snobbery. There are a lot of people who take a lot of pleasure in pointing out the mistakes of others and making all sorts of assumptions about them. Some of these self-appointed defenders of the English language seem to believe that the only reason anyone could be less well (or more cheaply) educated than themselves is idleness. But that’s just life – language is one of the tools we use to judge each other. Sometimes it’s fair, sometimes it’s not, but there are plenty of much more superficial things than spelling (skin colour, accent, haircut) which we use to judge each other all the time.

Personally I find the smug bastards who make a fuss about prepositions at ends of sentences and apostrophes in the wrong places to be much more annoying than the people who make these mistakes. But that’s a judgement like any other, I suppose. On the whole I still think it’s worth getting things right, in order to send out the signal that you give a shit about the reader, and that you’ve put some effort in, and that you’re not an idiot. But it really depends on whether it’s your mum or your parole officer who’s going to read it.

The NBS have obviously decided that they want to be casual with me. They want to be my friend. They want me to know that they’re down with the kids. Either that or they just can’t write (which I refuse to believe, since they can transfuse blood, and that has to be harder). They’re probably terribly chuffed that they’ve managed to contact me by such a cutting edge medium at all, and are keen to show that they know the vernacular. As a result (once I’ve finished obsessing about the lower case ‘h’), perhaps I’ll feel slightly more inclined to go and have them stab me in the arm again soon. Or perhaps I’ll feel like they’re patronising me and choose to keep my blood. Either way, they’ve used language that some would consider ‘wrong’ to tell me something about how they want to relate to me. These nuances get lost if you apply the rules too strictly.

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