Every once in a while I have to let my inner engineer interact with the real world. I apologize to you now but this post is the result of one of those times.

About a year ago I wrote a post bemoaning the confusing rules of writing. It’s my nature to look at a system as if the rules defined the system. Put a comma here, put a semicolon here, never split infinitives, always run spell check… Follow all the rules and my writing will be wonderful.

I can look back at that post and see how confused I was. Writing is all about communication and less about following the rules. Following the rules of grammar facilitates communication, it does not enhance the message. Hmm, I see a lot of you disagree with that statement.

I’m going to borrow a few engineering terms to help explain why I say that. When I talk about noise, I’m talking about anything that does not contribute to the signal (message). When I say a something has a high signal to noise ratio, it means that I have no problem understanding the message. When I say the s/n ratio is low it means my wife is trying to talk to me while I’m listening to CarTalk. I don’t have the bandwidth to process both messages simultaneously.

There’s an important concept in that example, the noise and the message are different depending on the viewpoint. Let’s go back to the rules of grammar. For this post, I’m putting proper spelling, correct placement of punctuation symbols and correct structural syntax under the umbrella of grammar.  Having said that, we can both agree that no one is going to be so overwhelmed by the proper use of grammar that the sentence structure will be forever etched in their minds.  The value of a message is in the concept it describes, not its use of grammar.

If I say, “the too elephints mutually decided it was to far two walk,” there’s no doubt about my message but seeing the “too” misused caused your mind to stop reading and spawn an error message. Each time you saw a misused or misspelled word, you stopped reading to process the error. Your mind is having to work much harder to understand my message.

Unless my message has very high value, the meaning is probably lost while you are processing all the error messages. You’re also probably irritated at me because I showed a lack of respect to you by not taking the time to get it right.

Did you notice that it’s you generating the noise? Poorly constructed as it is, the message is still clear. Someone unfamiliar with the rules would have far less trouble processing the message than you do. Yet, for some of you, the message is completely lost because of the way your mind processes the errors.

I want you to pause here and think about that . . . . . . . . . . .

Sorry, I let you have a little too much time, I think I lost a few readers there.

When I write, it’s important I get those rules right. Otherwise, because of the time you spend processing errors, the value of my writing goes down with respect to the time it takes you to process it. My writing acquires a lower entertainment value for you.

This also explains why many award winning movies do so poorly in the box office. If I’m a critic, the small flaws in a movie detract from the entertainment value. For me, I’ll probably miss the flaws completely causing the entertainment value to be higher for me.

All very interesting but what’s the practical value you ask? In engineering terms, grammar is the protocol written language. Not following the protocol will often result in a garbled fuzzy message, sometimes understood, and sometimes misunderstood. Poor adherence to the protocol or a complete lack of protocol causes the processing time to go up, resulting in a lower message value / effort to process score (Yes, you may not realize it, but you do use message value / effort as a factor in judging what you read). The net result is a reduction in the intrinsic value of the message.

There you have it. You should follow the rules of grammar, arcane as they may seem, because not following them results in a much lower message impact. Excellent grammar will never increase the value of your message but poor grammar will always reduce the value. In the cases where there are differences of opinion about the rule, you have to decide where your audience falls.

For all the engineers reading this, if you’re thinking my formula is incorrect, you’re right. The actual formula is message impact equals message value * effort to read message/(effort to read message + effort to process errors). I wanted you to understand you’re not immune to this issue simply because you can’t spell. You just respond to other stimuli.

In case you’re wondering, as my wife will attest, I really do think this way.


© 2014 – 2019, Byron Seastrunk. All rights reserved.