Recently I read a letter to the editor in our local paper. It began “I am disturbed by the consent allocation that the farmers of California are wasteful of our water.” When I first read it, I thought that the writer was upset by the government allocation of our precious water to California farmers, who in the writer’s opinion were wasteful. I didn’t know the details of that “consent allocation” to which she referred, but that was all I could figure it could mean. I did not read further. It turns out there is no such “consent allocation.”
My wife is the one who decrypted it. The writer actually meant she was disturbed by the constant allegations that the farmers wasted water. It became apparent later in the letter that the person was a farmer and was defending them. The writer actually meant the opposite of what I thought. How could this happen? I can think of a few ways. My wife thought the writer used voice recognition software, which was imperfect. I thought perhaps the letter was just so poorly spelled that the editors couldn’t understand it and made the corrections as best they could. A third possibility is that the writer used spell check or some autocorrect feature and the spelling or typos were so bad that computer made bad guesses at correction. The writer clearly failed to proofread and correct. The editor of the Letters section obviously was unfamiliar with the details of the dispute or that mistake would have been caught. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.
All of these have a common feature: sloppiness of language. Whether it’s failure to spell correctly, failure to speak clearly, or failure to proofread, sloppiness of language hurts you in many subtle, unexpected ways. Here the writer’s point was not just lost, it actually turned into advocacy for her opponents’ view, at least to my ears. Maybe some farmer out there, or their kids, think learning to spell, learning grammar, or learning to read and write well aren’t important since they’re “only” farmers. Think again. You may be persuading people to cut off your water when you mean exactly the opposite.