If you are anxious about writing, you are not alone. Lots of people are sensitive to criticism. The risk increases if you use social media at work. One typo, one split infinitive, and you may be declared a ‘fool’ … publicly. Even if you offer the briefest comment, your words may be criticised … internationally. That’s not good.
The web provides lots of information on people’s ‘errors’. They are called ‘fails’. You can find images of the ‘funniest spelling errors in signs’. There are features on the worst first sentence in a novel. There are many more. And, they are all funny to a point.
But, does everyone react the same way to these mocking entertainments? Thousands may be amused, but what about the humiliation of the person who ‘failed’? Are they a victim or simply an object of passing pleasure for the mob?
I wanted to know more about the writing ‘fail’. Do people react differently on social media when they see a spelling error or a grammatical tangle? How can I manage this better?
I decided to choose two commenter interactions on two different blogs. Both related to poor writing.
When I say ‘different’ blogs, I mean it.
The first blog focused on grammar and linguistics. I guess its visitors are men and women who are older than 30 years and well educated. I’ve called them ‘The Linguists’.
The second blog focused on YouTube-style, video entertainment: cars, gals, sport, that sort of thing. My guess was that those visitors are mostly men from 18 to 35 years old who are not tertiary trained. These are ‘The Lads’.
Of course, this analysis can provide only scant anecdotal evidence. However, I thought it may be useful as public sector organisations prepare to engage more intensively with social media.
I’ve used the terms ‘corrector’ and ‘defender’ to highlight the commenters’ individual stances.
The first commenters I examined are people I will call ‘linguists’. They are professionals and amateurs interested in English grammar, writing and stylistic conventions. They appear to be enthusiasts.
I expected this would be a tolerant group. After all, rules and usage is their interest and they would know the vagaries of language. Remember, this is a totally random selection and, no doubt, is highly skewed.
The Economist claimed to have found the world’s worst sentence. This is the ‘culprit’.
‘Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.’
No doubt, it is pretty bad. So, how do language enthusiasts react to it?
The Commenters’ Interaction
Here’s one commenter.
(I’m struck by your deers found in headlights, which could suggest that plurals of irregular nouns get regularized when they denote mentions of the word instead of uses—deer vs “deer”s.)
First, notice the parentheses. The commenter is indicating that they are ‘speaking parenthetically’. At first, it looks odd but it is a quick and easy method to make that point clear.
The commenter notes that ‘deers’ is used as a plural because the writer is referring to the word ‘deer’ not to the animal. The plural of ‘deer’ (the animal) is ‘deer’.
Raising a parenthetic, technical issue suggests that this commenter is reasonably comfortable in joining with the general criticism. However, they are smart and have pin-pointed another potential problem, which they resolve by waving it through as common usage: ‘irregular nouns get regularized’.
Another commenter then writes
I think rabbits is the usual animal in British metaphorical headlights, whereas deer is for American ones. Thus an American contributor to the Economist can be Orwell-compliant by using “rabbit”, and a Brit likewise by using “deer”.
This comment has an echo of the previous: another problem and a potential solution. Of course, this comment finishes with something close to an amusing ‘plausible denial’.
A third commenter follows up with a zinger.
Here’s another hapless journalist caught in a linguist’s headlights. Bang!
This commenter is vigorously defending the original writer, whom they see as the poor hack journalist trying to do their best. The commenter swapped the journalist for the deer and the linguist for the car. There is a reprimand here directed at those who criticise, even if they do so mildly.
A defender now battles two correctors.
Then, another commenter jumps in: a linguist aficionado who delights in the kitsch images evoked by mixed metaphors. I imagine this commenter as Lady Gaga walking in a university lecture hall, unannounced.
I happen to love mixed metaphors – I always assume they are deliberate, which is part of my love, and I admit that thinking they are inadvertent would make me love them less. I love them even when I hate what they are saying.Mixed media.
So I couldn’t figure out what anyone could find to object to in this.
Oh, right. I get it. Nice dress, Lady Gaga.
Now, remember that these commenters are enthusiasts. No comment seemed excessively harsh, but, all were clever in their own way. Two correctors and two defenders. The correctors both identified problems and related them to usage. The defenders defined the writer as a trapped victim and a free spirit.
Now let’s see how a very different group of commenters deal with poor writing.
These comments are from an entertainment blog for young men. Most visitors are not tertiary educated.
The visitors have watched a short YouTube-style video of a homeless person being helped by a kind-hearted stranger. The ‘stranger’ is the video creator. He finds the homeless man and gives him new clothes, a hotel room and good food. To complete the video clip, he provides the man with a wonderful dessert.
The Commenters’ Interaction
The first comment of interest was
I thought he was going to bring in a hooker for “desert”.
That comment was corrected by the next commenter.
I’d call that a gentle correction. It’s just an asterisk followed by the correct spelling. Determined but discreet.
Here’s the immediate reaction from the first commenter who is the original writer.
WATCH OUT PEPZ, GRAMMAR POLICE ON THE PATROL. You Stupid Bitch.
Ouch. Someone is having a bad day or they need anger management. They are yelling. They are abusive.
Then, another commenter writes
thats spelling, not grammar. stupid bitch.
So, a verbal brawl has broken out.
Notice how quickly and vigorously the writer defended his comment. Notice the ‘roundhouse’ swing from the last commenter.
While reading that final comment, I wondered if should join the fray. After all, the last commenter (correcting the previous on the basis of accuracy) forgot to start a sentence with an upper case letter. They omitted the apostrophe; misused a full point by using a comma instead; and, after the full point’s misuse, neglected to use an upper case letter again.
But, what would happen if I joined in? I know where this leads: absolutely nowhere. This is a barroom brawl. I’m not going there.
Commenters are Gold
What lessons can we gain from this?
1. Comments tell you lots about the people engaging with you. It doesn’t take much effort to develop a keen insight into commenters’ educational level, their attitudes and behaviours. So, their comments are gold.
2. People who are reading your posts, tweets or blog are assessing you. You are assessing them. So, be friendly and focused. Think ‘relaxed professional’. That seems to work best in most social media interactions.
3. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarity. It’s simple.
4. If a commenter has made an error but their meaning is perfectly clear, get on with the interaction. Ignore the irritation. Correcting other people’s writing is asking for trouble. The writer or their defenders will attack your ‘uncharitable behaviour’ and/or will find errors in your writing. It will be their sweet revenge. So, don’t correct commenters’ writing.
6. Continue being polite. Treat commenters with respect, especially when you disagree with their ideas or when you are offended. Deal with the issue at hand, not the writer’s skills or lack of them.
Together, I believe these rules create a framework for maintaining the quality and integrity of a social media interaction.
Keep it friendly. Keep it focused.
What other lessons should we learn from commenters?