Essay #5: Argument: Does Spelling Matter?
Begin by reading:
The writing assignment:
Madders Matters" presents two distinct viewpoints (though the author is a bit soft-edged on her own opinion):
- The idea that the candidate's clinical skills and other considerations (gender, race) outweigh such problems as a spelling error on her résumé. Pure academics are less important than finding the right person to get the task done.
- The idea that careful editing and academic precision really are part of the focus of a college or university, so a candidate who is unaware of small proofreading issues is truly unsuited for this clinical position. (The soft-edged part here is that the author admits that she does not enforce precise accuracy on some typesetting issues.)
Choose a side, present and defend your position, using data and logic.
This essay is, in a sense, a capstone for your English 100 course, so you should apply everything you've learned to this point. In particular, you should apply lessons on clarity and support for your point. I can see at least two potential pitfalls in this assignment:
- Invective and abuse. An academic argument paper is nothing like the screaming between the coach and the umpire on the pitcher's mound, nor is it like the current brand of name-calling and insult we hear from politicians. Calling someone a "grammar Nazi" does not advance your side of the argument.
- Personal tales of woe. You may have suffered under a too-harsh English teacher who simply made you memorize rules and who made you feel like an idiot if you couldn't remember how to spell "perceive." That kind of story, if it fits this essay at all, is only a minor part.
The real question, and the point of your paper, is how closely we should enforce academic standards. This probably goes beyond English grammar. If a lecturer misstates the date of a historical event, is that a disqualifier? Does that mean that we should ignore everything in the lecture? Is there a dividing line? (And, for the record, some grammar perfectionists would get upset that I didn't write "an historical event.")
Is there a middle ground?
Brottman herself raises the question. As I consider the alternatives posed by the assignment, I can see a range of possibilities (and each one would need both explanation and support):
- English language rules are absolute and strict—academically respectable writers must never violate any of them.
- At the other extreme, if we can figure out what you are writing, why should we worry?
- The linguist and the historian point out that grammar rules are really usage rules, and they can change very quickly.
- Business and academic readers can see grammar very differently. "Data" is, technically, the plural of a Latin word (datum), so it should take a plural verb: "The data were analyzed by our team." Most readers (except for the Latin experts) would call that an error.
- And finally, some of the differences are so small that most readers cannot even see them. Did you know the difference between an em dash and an en dash before I showed you? Would you worry about whether we hit the space bar once or twice between sentences?
So the bottom line here is to figure out what you think, support it with reasons and logic that go beyond your personal feelings, and present the result.
By the way
Just for the record (and because I used to be a typesetter), here are the three types of hyphen things Brottman discusses:
- This is a hyphen - It goes between words to turn them into a single word (lily-livered).
- This is an en dash – You usually see it to separate ranges of numbers (pages 9–12). It is the size of the letter n.
- This is an em dash — It is a sentence-level punctuation similar to parentheses—but louder. It is the size of the letter m.
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Revised 7/26/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: email@example.com.