There’s a reason why they’re called The Basics

I frequently read ridiculously funny things on professional writing forums, most of which, sadly, weren’t intended as a joke. Since I live in a creative household, I tend to share these little gems with my husband and adult offspring so that we can all enjoy. But sometimes I read and share something so outrageous that we skip the laughter and land on righteous indignation.

“Seriously? Somebody posted a question asking How important is grammar and punctuation (i.e., subject verb agreement, conditonl clause, etc.) for a technical writer? Unbelievable!”

Believe it. The bold portion is word for word, complete with the misspelling of conditional.

Call me a snob. Call me an elitist. But I simply don’t understand how someone can call themselves a writer, or worse a professional writer, if they can’t or don’t understand and follow the most basic grammar and spelling rules.

To sign or not to sign

They got it right the first time, and then failed to duplicate their efforts on the second line

That’s like getting paid to be a plumber and not being able to tighten a sink faucet. It’s like calling yourself an artist, a painter, but not knowing the difference between watercolors and acrylics. It’s akin to claiming to be a mechanic without knowing how to open the hood of a car, or how to jump-start the battery. Or it’s the same as getting paid to run a multi-billion dollar corporation without understanding that failing to serve your largest customers will erode your profits and eventually cost you your job.

Ok, wait, that does happen an awful lot lately. But it doesn’t make it right. And it isn’t right to call yourself a writer, personally or professionally, if you don’t know the basics.

By basics, I mean [bey-siks], the fundamentals of using the language (English for our purposes) to communicate information to a reader.

I’m not going to teach a grammar lesson with this entry. I’m not even going to provide links to those who do, although I likely will add those on a resources page here eventually. What I am going to do, however, is indulge my desire to list my personal basic pet peeves.

These are the tools I expect professional writers using the English language to have mastered.

  • The fact that every sentence requires a subject and a verb. The subject can be implied. The verb cannot.
  • Punctuation–what it is and why it’s necessary, even in a text message, or a Facebook or Twitter post
  • The difference between and appropriate use of:

its and it’s
there, their and they’re
to and too
your and you’re
effect and affect
except and accept

  • Subject verb agreement–what it is and why it should be second nature if you make your living, or hope to make your mark with words

It’s ok if you can’t explain what a gerund phrase is or diagram a sentence. But you should have an ear, or an eye, for sentence structure and paragraph flow. And you MUST know the basics.

If you don’t, you’re not a professional, regardless of how long you’ve been writing or how much you get paid.