I’m sometimes known for a habit of pointing out spelling and grammar errors wherever I see them. It turns out that many of my colleagues do not appreciate this valuable free service as much as I think they should. “You know what I mean.” “It gets the point across.” These are the defenses I often hear. My counterargument is that the English language is a tool for communication. Like any tool, if it is continually misused it will eventually stop working.
The way I see it, spelling and grammar are like the standard work for communication. Standards are often rigid and must be followed, but so must they be continually improved. Commonly accepted usage among educated people leads to changes in the rules of spelling and grammar. Even the dictionary (one of the key standard work documents for any language) is periodically subjected to 5S, as words are added and sometimes removed.
One of the most important functions of standard work is to make abnormal conditions readily apparent. Take the case some time ago of counterfeit toothpaste that found its way into the US consumer market. The way you could recognize it was through several misspellings on the label. (The toothpaste was manufactured in China and contained a potentially harmful ingredient.)
I came across another example during my recent jury service. The prosecutor’s opening statement consisted of a PowerPoint presentation that, aside from breaking every presentation rule I know (too many bullets, too many words, too small font, etc.) was riddled with spelling errors. I was not the only juror to notice these mistakes. I can’t say if this damaged his case at all, but it did speak to a lack of attention to detail that many jury members at least found troubling.
In communication, as is the case in any process, adherence to the standard work is a prerequisite to continuous improvement.
(This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Edwin Newman, 1919-2010.)