Suddenly, we have come to accept a writing genre that allows us to disregard vital communication rules, style and scholarship with impunity, as if modern grammarians care more about cooking standards than Shakespeareâ€™s Much Ado about Nothing. And if you have noticed, the 21st Century is much ado about nothing: we profess and demand knowledge on a lot of things, but all we do is sit back and instruct our gadgets to initiate and complete our thought processing, as if prostitution is not a crime in the Church of Pentecost.
So we have all become prostitutes in a way: we prefer the short cut mode of doing things, because the result produced by the approved route is not any different. When you ask a prostitute of her or rather his health (these days, male prostitutes are juicier), they tell you their price instead. What do you need their health for? If they were sick, they wouldnâ€™t be on the streets. E-mail communication, especially the informal ones have a similar character. If a correspondent at the other end of cyberspace writes to another: â€˜c u ltr busy wi som1 now. Mb morrow. If OK hit bak asap,â€™ the recipient should be able to decode and understand the message to be: â€˜I will see you later; I am busy with somebody now. May be, tomorrow. If this is OK by you, confirm as soon as possible.â€™ They are in each otherâ€™s thinking, and they complete one anotherâ€™s thoughts. Their common frame of reference makes understanding possible.
This â€˜amputated form of writingâ€™ has introduced words and phrases which have become accepted into the lexicon of public discourse. Apart from the staccato nature of such abbreviated writing, all the rules of grammar, especially punctuation, are treated like the biblical commandment on tithe giving: to those who believe, it is a prophecy; to those who donâ€™t want to pay, it is a monthly nuisance. Without good spelling and punctuation, many of the things we read will actually be a nuisance. For instance, if we came across the statement: â€˜Never mind people who dislike horses are in a minority,â€™ we are likely to misinterpret the writerâ€™s intentions to be: disregard the people who do like something else, because horses are in the minority. But just a colon (:) after Never mind, will communicate the intended meaning.
Gradually, and most regrettably, the days when teachers read aloud good essays written by brilliant students to the rest of the class are dying out. Very few of us have read or written a letter on hard paper recently. Years ago, girls in secondary schools made a sport out of collecting love-perfumed letters from their boyfriends in sister second cycle institutions. Boys who were daring enough to approach ladies during vacation classes, would start composing the letters in the middle of the vacation break, constantly borrowing new words and expressions from teachers and friends to store for the maiden letter. Of course, we all remember the usual: â€˜My sweet Paulina, I love you 99%; just add 1% to it and we will have a lovely rainbow full of love. You are the apple of my eyes. I loved you since the beginning of the first day my eyes first met your beautiful eyes. I see you in my dreams every day and I know you see me too.â€™
Those were beautiful times. Boys who didnâ€™t have lovers will write themselves letters and go to town to post them to themselves. Most of us didnâ€™t understand what we wrote: The apple of my eye meant something quite different from what it actually means, but we wrote it all the same, and our recipients appreciated us very much, as if a trader who sells fish is necessarily selfish. The men enjoyed writing big words to express their masculinity, which usually found favour with the tender femininity of the female readers. I was nicknamed BBC by students of Yaa Asantewaa Girls in Kumasi, where friends of Dorcas Owusuaa Asubonteng, my harmattan pawpaw at the time, used to read some serious â€˜atavisticâ€™ words from me twice a week. I had started studying romantic poetry as a sixth former; I could borrow freely from the poems of William Wordsworth and John Keats. The day I visited her at the school, one of her friends came to inquire of me, inadvertently: please, are you Mr BBC? She had forgotten to leave the gossip behind, ladies being what they are.
When the love died, ladies had a nasty way of ending the communication. They would choose to write otherwise unprintable words on a stretch of toilet roll, sometimes in red ink, if she was sure she wouldnâ€™t consider a comeback. If she wasnâ€™t certain of her intentions, the usual blue was fine. When you were lucky, your torn pictures were returned to you with a strong request for hers. They always wrote back to apologise.
Toady (the e-mail version of today), a text message or a quick e-mail can do all these in a sec (second). The effect is not the same: one has speed and immediacy; the other has â€˜love in your hands.â€™ In this broadband revolution, even very careful writers will concede that the strict distinction between a colon and a semicolon (the former being very useful in introducing vertical lists; acting as a mark of announcement and more rarely, for separating two contrasting statements, while the latter helps separate statements so that they can stand alone; separate items in a list and also for gauging whether two statements are closely related) are lost on many avid readers, just as you are lost in this rather long explanation of what a semicolon does, as if I thought you didnâ€™t know this already.
Writing, as an art form, has survived as the primary channel of communication for a very long time. In Homerâ€™ Iliad, there is a reference to a letter. Shakespeareâ€™s thee and thou may offend the ears of modernists who want a yes written as yes and not Aye, but it was a form of writing that at once came with it an unmatchable scholarship, intricately woven into every syllable. And when you read Wordsworth, you knew that the words were worth the paper on which they were written.
We do write a lot books today, but there is little education, because reading hasnâ€™t paid off. People want things done quickly: if you can type sex tonight into an internet search engine, and a thousand women flood your computer screen like Hurricane Katrina, displaying their manicured bottom shamelessly before you, why bother write a letter on a piece of paper? Technology drives many of the things we do: special microphones are designed to refine hoarse voices to produce albums. It will not be long; we will have cows singing Aben Wo Ha while Daddy Lumba sings us a moo.
Yet, this information age requires us to be accurate and impeccable in our communication, because many of the things we do have already been started half way by our computers. The moment you start typing a letter on your computer, a gentleman pops up on the right hand side of your screen, asking you if you need any help. There is a spelling and grammar check at the top of the screen. There is a cut and paste option, and a word count, too. These should make it easy for any buffoon to write a good letter, but we are witnessing very inexcusable communication lapses, as if Christ did not leave the Holy Spirit behind when he ascended into the heavens.
Most of us do not bother to reply e-mails, because we find it difficult to construct the first sentence in English; not that it would be easier if we were to do it in our mother tongue. It is normal to attempt to write and erase it, because you know it didnâ€™t sound like English. We struggle to put a few mistakes together in the form of words. We are often too lazy to read through before hurriedly clicking the send button, to carry our shame away. The fellow at the other end glosses over the mistakes, because he knows the tadpoles he would pass over as frogs in his reply would understandably be pardoned. So we tolerate each otherâ€™s communication deficiencies in the name of cyber charity. A goof is a goof; letâ€™s take note. A goof on the net is very much a goof.
Recently, a gentleman sent me this mail after reading my article on ghanaweb: â€˜pls nes time don quote Donad Ramfeild. I lk ur aticle anywey esp e humor. Kp it up.â€™ I was able to decode the meaning, even though his mail had no subject. As if the Bible was not written with inspiration, I also erred in my response: â€˜I am vary flattenedâ€™, to mean very flattered. We have become friends now, because he believes he has found a fellow cyber freak who like him, does not bother to read over his mails.
In email communication, there is always the temptation to respond too hastily and sometimes angrily. A quick word normally suffices where a good explanation in three sentences and a good heading are required. We are also tempted to misjudge the level of formality and place less importance on a mail, because we receive hundreds daily. We choose to read junk mails or delete them to where they belong. And technology makes it possible for us to spit and eat back our spittle, as if regurgitation has become good manners: you can go back to the dustbin and fetch back something you deleted. We can almost always get away with otherwise unpardonable blunders, such as copying mails to unintended recipients. It is not unusual for teachers to receive pornographic material from their students, instead of their completed assignment. And those of who escaped the Asian tsunami live the daily nightmare of having to avoid getting drowned in the innumerable forwarded messages we receive daily.
As a rule, a very big employer in the UK uses â€˜cyber vigilanceâ€™ as the first elimination criterion in their employment process. A member of staff will engage a prospective employee in a series of email communication, to record the number of mistakes the candidate will make. If you made more than three, you were not the meticulous high-flyer they were looking for. They delete you into their corporate dustbin, and they never fetch you back for a second try. So if you still have typos in your CV in this age, you will only be eligible to work with bribe-extorting policemen, who do not care to check the points on a driverâ€™s licence, because the money settles it.
Letâ€™s understand that, a single mail we send to a lover from our dining tables is accessible to the world. If in official writing clichÃ©s are inappropriate, they should be bad for e-mail communication too, even those to our friends. If a man writes to his wife that he is over the moon, we know he is happy about something. But people in Botswana will look at him strangely, because over there, you are over the moon when you are pregnant. You might end up in the Guinness Book of records.
Before that happens, letâ€™s pay particular attention to our e-mails, before we pump avoidable mistakes into cyberspace. Martin Cutts, the director of Plain Language Commission, proposes five effective ways to organise our e-mails. We can use the top-heavy triangle system, where we set the scene, follow it with the big news and then less important facts. We can also try the problem-cause-solution, especially for short letters; the simple question and answer formula or the popular SCRAP method: Situation, Complication, Resolution, Action and Politeness. If we donâ€™t like any of these four, there is the SOAP style: Situation, Objective, Appraisal and Proposal. If it pays to speak well, it should pay to write well, if not very well.