Saturday, September 6, 2014

How Computers Mangled the Art of Writing

My friends have gotten me all wrong over the years. Many of them seem to assume that I sit around like their stern 7th-grade English teacher, with my figurative red-ink pen in hand, inspecting and then ripping apart every sentence in every email that everyone sends to me. I can't tell you how many emails I've received followed by emails apologizing for typos, misspellings, grammatical and punctuation errors, and global warming, as if those were things for which one has apologize. I've even had people tell me they refrain from sending me emails altogether for fear of what I might do with them on the privacy of my own laptop.

Well, newsflash, folks: I'm only human, and I know you all are, too. I'm the king of typos, and I'm fairly unapologetic about it. I don't have a personal copy editor to proofread every single word I write before pressing send. And why would I want one? In this not-so-golden age of emailing and texting, written communication could use evidence of humanity, now that we don't rely on handwriting to impart it. (Why do you think we're always having to "Type the letters in the box" on certain websites? To prove we're not monkeys!)

To this day, I have no idea what the signatures of the last few guys I dated even looked like, which is kind of pathetic, and not just because you can tell a lot about someone from their penmanship. I wonder how things would have worked out if our last few tense email/text conversations had gone down on paper instead, if there had been several crossed out words alongside lapses in good spelling and punctuation, indicating someone who was searching for the right words, the right way to verbally express his emotions, someone who was being human. I may not want to sit through a book or a professional email that's riddled with typos, but when someone is writing to me on a personal and intimate level, I expect imperfection. It makes them seem more sincere and less douchey.

I'm not saying I'm cool with illiteracy or egregious grammatical blunders -- like double negatives, and lack of subject-verb agreement and linking verbs -- but there's no need to proofread every missive to perfection. Typos and other assorted literary blemishes (within reason) can make emails seem more authentic, more real, more honest, more vulnerable -- all qualities I look for in someone with whom I'd want to regularly exchange them.

I once had a new Argentine ex send me a post-mortem email that was so perfectly constructed I was certain someone else had written it for him. While his English was by no means perfect, he was majoring in English at university with the intention of one day teaching it at a college level, so it's not as if we regularly had communication breakdowns due to any language barrier. I'm not sure why he felt he needed a ghost writer to edit all of the personality out of the last email he ever sent to me, but the prose was so arch and stilted in its perfection that I didn't buy it when he ended with "I'll always love you."

So, relax, people. Feel free to send me emails written with a human touch. I promise I'll read them without critiquing spelling, punctuation or grammar (as long as the latter doesn't make you sound like you dropped out of school after sixth grade). Confusing "you're" and "your," "it's" and "its," and "an" and "and" may produce speed-reading bumps, but they rarely stop me dead in my tracks. Everybody makes mistakes. That's what makes humanity beautiful.

Anyway, I'll probably be too busy rolling my eyes at all of the annoying deliberate touches -- the smiley faces, the incessant exclamation points, the LOLs -- to even notice the stuff that you don't do on purpose. I blame computers, not the educational system, for the way we now mangle the written word. Back in the good-old letter-writing days, did anyone use a colon followed by a parenthesis to indicate that what was just written was written with a smile, occasionally replacing the colon with a semicolon in order to wink? If you have to announce the joke after telling it, hasn't it already fallen flat?

A few years before smart phones and texting made all those annoying communication devices epidemic, my friend Mara and I were already laughing at, not with, people for using punctuation emoticons, which are right up there with XXXs and OOOs in the realm of pointlessness. Perhaps we overdid it a little, too, deeming guys unsuitable dating material for piling on smiley and winky faces, but our distaste was in the right place. Now, before you accuse me of contradicting what I just wrote, we never criticized them for anything I've already given a free pass. We slammed them for ending too many perfectly fine sentences with " :)," " ;)," and so on. To these eyes, and presumably to Mara's, they had a way of draining all of the gravitas out of a potential suitor and giving him the whiff of frivolity.

If you have to constantly end sentences with ":)" to let people know that you wrote them with a smile, perhaps you should adjust your overall tone so that your sunny disposition is clear. We may not have the benefit of facial expressions to guide us with written communication, but that's exactly why we have words. And what does ":/" and ":S" even mean?

There's also something off-puttingly glib about too many emoticons, or using them in lieu of actual sentences. A simple ":(" in response to a passionate email from me set the stage for the break-up with one of my exes, and he wasn't even an emoticon-er, which had been one of his assets. One or two well-placed emoticons I can handle, but when nearly every sentence ends with one, they can begin to seem a little phony. When what comes before it isn't exactly sunshine and rainbows, a smiley face can come across as being passive-aggressive, too, like you could't resist being kind of testy and bitchy, but you didn't have the guts not to try to soften the blow.

(For the record, I have less of an issue with simple graphic emoticons, possibly because I see them as much as an aesthetic device as a communication accessory. And they have the power to perk up boring IM conversations. But one per email, please.)

Exclamation points serve a completely different purpose. They're supposed to indicate enthusiasm, and I, for one, love it when an email begins with "Jeremy!" But life is not a Shania Twain song title. Nobody but possibly the world's most annoying person delivers every single line with breathless glee when speaking. So why end every written sentence with an exclamation mark -- or five? It only make the one that came after my name seem less special, less honest. I might assume it has nothing to do with me, and the person doing way too much exclaiming just wants to be liked by everyone.

To be honest, though, I'd take too many exclamation points to an overabundance of LOLs. My love/hate relationship with acronyms (currently set to hate) has been documented (here), so I won't use this space to rage against the machines for making them so commonplace, instead focusing on what is perhaps the most overused acronym of all time: LOL.

I love to laugh out loud as much as the next cut-up, but not everything is a laughing matter, and if everything is to someone, then how funny can any of it actually be. I don't know which is more off-putting, when "LOL" is in response to something I've written, or something the person using it has written. When it's the latter, it's the equivalent of laughing at your own jokes, which is something that most socially aware people would avoid doing in real life.

Would we actually laugh out loud if the sentence for which we're using it were uttered orally? Has anyone ever actually rolled on the floor laughing (ROTFL) or laughed his or her fucking ass off (LMFAO)? Most people are simply not that funny, and too many LOLs can feel patronizing, dismissive and, yes, phony. I prefer a sparingly used "hahaha" (just one "ha" is bordering on ridicule), or just tell me how funny I am. (Remember the episode of Scrubs where Zach Braff criticized Mandy Moore for always saying "That's funny" but never laughing?)

Sometimes when I'm sighing over yet another "LOL," I start longing for the good old days when people not only wrote letters but they wrote letters that didn't have to fall back on emoticons and acronyms to communicate what words are perfectly capable of relaying. (On the plus side, though, kids today are learning the English keyboard at an earlier age, which makes typing class and typing teachers -- never the nicest ones of the bunch -- pretty much obsolete.)

Did Teddy Roosevelt use emoticons and acronyms in his handwritten love letters to his first wife, Alice, when he was courting her? I think we can assume that he didn't, but had he done so, at least he would have had a good excuse. Quills and dip-it-in-ink fountain pens must have been horrendous to maneuver, especially when you had as much to say as the 26th U.S. President did!!! (TR was not exactly known for his understatement, but I suspect that when expressing his feelings to Alice, he did with love, not a ton of exclamation points and "<3.")

People were able to communicate just fine without the use of backspace, delete, cut and paste and auto correct. Sometimes it meant crumpling up a page and starting over, but it was usually worth it in the end. Those letters that are read in voice over during documentaries about events that happened centuries ago, always sound as eloquent as any perfectly constructed email. I'll bet there were plenty of typos in them, but not one single emoticon or "LOL."

So the next time you're considering whether to write to me and you decide not to for fear of being graded, reconsider. I'd really love to hear from you. I promise I'll shut up my inner editor, if you just let your words -- poorly spelled, misplaced and badly punctuated as they may or may not be -- and not modern communication flourishes do your talking for you.

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