E-mail What U Say

It used to be that shunning punctuation was the domain of creative types such as ee cummings. Now it seems anyone with a keyboard, an e-mail account and a dash of impatience can just say no to some of the building blocks of good written communication, such as capitalization and correct grammar and spelling.

Many of us are guilty as charged. Raise your hand if you’ve never shot off an e-mail without rereading it or eschewed the dictionary in favour of your best guess thinking, “Who cares? It’s not a real letter.” Not many hands up out there. As both senders and recipients of e-mail, we’ve begun to overlook such indiscretions.

Mary Bruder, a.k.a. The Grammar Lady, who runs a grammar Web site (www.grammarlady.com) and hotline from Skaneateles, N.Y., points to the lickety-split nature of e-mail as the culprit, because it encourages people to act without thinking. “People think if they’re in a hurry, it’s not such a big deal,” Bruder says.

But is it a big deal? Sloppy e-mail may make the writer look stupid or confuse the recipient, but it’s unlikely to be the downfall of our civilization. If we don’t maintain other sources of written communication, however, Bruder says, “There could be a [communication] breakdown along age lines, like when families who don’t speak English immigrate. The children learn the new language and can’t speak to the grandparents. I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Bruder’s doing her best to prevent that. She recently wrote a book called Much Ado About a Lot (Hyperion, 2000), which tells people what sort of grammar is appropriate for different situations. She cautions against putting too much stock in spell check and grammar check programs, rather unsubtle tools. As The Grammar Lady, Bruder welcomes visitors to post grammar questions on her Web site but warns that she won’t answer uncapitalized or unpunctuated messages.

She concedes, though, that she doesn’t get a lot of those: “I think people are on their best behaviour when they write to me.”

If only that were the case with every e-mail.