No one cares about handwriting; is good grammar next?

By Alice Wilkinson

I spend a fair amount of time on Instagram, and it is astonishing how many people think the seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter – have capital letters. But is it actually astonishing?

After all, language is fluid, whether we like it or not. As the world around us changes, the way we communicate inevitably changes, too. For example, in the past, a person’s handwriting meant a great deal. It gave an indication as to the writer’s background and education, gender, wealth and status. Somewhat dubiously, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, regularly uses handwriting to identify various criminal characteristics.

Indeed, up until relatively recently, we would draw conclusions about people based on their handwriting – that a person with an illegible scrawl is intelligent or creative, or that a person who dots their i’s with a heart is a teenage girl in the 90s.

But today, we think very little about handwriting. Though many of us clearly remember practising “joined up” writing, we rarely use it today. Instead we text, send an email, write a blog. These days, bad handwriting is almost a badge of honour – a sign of being modern and plugged in.

Good grammar still has its advocates – but for how long? Much like handwriting in its former glory days, good grammar is an important mark of professionalism. In fact, when auto-editing software company, Grammarly, reviewed the LinkedIn profiles of 100 native English-speakers, it found that those with fewer grammatical errors in their profiles had higher positions. Similarly, professionals with one to four promotions over their ten-year careers made 45% more grammatical errors than those with six to nine promotions in the same timeframe.

Whilst we cannot know which came first – the good grammar or the promotions – it is fair to say that we expect good grammar from professionals, especially from those in senior positions. And yet it is possible we will soon consider an adherence to good grammar to be eccentric and fastidious.

The comparatively recent explosion of digital content is the key issue here. On the one hand, writing is generally less formal than it once was and many of the strict grammar rules we learnt at school have alternatives that are, through common usage, now almost as valid.

Moreover, the sheer volume of online content means that questionable grammar is extremely common, as well as visible. We have all come across social media posts rendered almost indecipherable by a lack of punctuation, for example.

On the other hand, online content has gained credibility: once the exclusive territory of celebrities and conspiracy theorists, digital media platforms are now legitimate sources of news and opinion. Tweets are used in place of direct quotes, particularly in political reporting, and half of UK adults get their news from social media.

With this legitimacy comes the exacting standards of print media. Typos, misplaced punction and poor phrasing are frequently – and very publicly – called out. For businesses, communications must foster credibility and whilst good grammar will probably go unnoticed, mistakes will not.

All this has taught us to value good grammar even more highly than before. Of course, language is evolving and, over time, grammar rules soften into stylistic choices. Still, the power of written content means that, for the foreseeable future, we are unlikely to lose our love of good grammar. Until emojis take over, of course.