Should We Care About Grammar and Structure?

“Every language has a grammar, a set of rules that govern usage and meaning, and literary language is no different. It’s all more or less arbitrary of course, just like language itself.”
Thomas C. Foster

I have written a lot about textbooks, ten blog posts.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say the I have written about the confluence of textbooks, modern technology, and educational practices.  What is a textbook, what should a textbook be, is education or business driving the design of textbooks, do textbooks still have a place in modern education, and should textbooks be digital or physical?

Lately, I have been thinking about grammar and typography with respects to writing and communication.  I try and pay attention to grammar when I write.  I am by no means a grammar expert. I am much more concerned with making sure my arguments and points get across then I am with perfect grammar.  I own a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, I like the book; however, if it were not for grammar checkers, I would be hopeless when it comes to commas.

I have been thinking a lot about grammar, typography, and layout lately. Mostly because of the humble period.  More precisely, the number of spaces used after the period.  When I was in school, my teachers taught, it would be more accurate to say abusively drilled into us that you always used two spaces after the period. Today it would appear that most style guides suggest using one space after a period. The only exception being the American Psychological Association (APA). However, this seems to have changed with the release of the 7th addition APA standards.

While the argument about double vs. single spaces is old, I have encountered it several times while recently doing research.  I wondered when the period rule changed. Surprisingly I can’t find a date or even decade.  In a lot of the articles about one space or two, the authors focused on explaining how the spacing was the result of “technology.”  I will come back to the technology (typewriter) argument in another blog post.

The argument about two spaces or one comes down to readability. Specifically, how does spacing affect readability?  It turns out there is little actual research looking at the effect of the number of spaces after the period on readability.  A paper published in April of 2018 Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during reading concludes, two spaces.  Yes, I said a paper one.  However, the evidence is currently 100% on the side of two.  More research is needed.

What I found most interesting, however, was an article from the Atlantic The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After a Period A new study proves that half of people are correct. The other is also correct.  After explaining what the article says, the author “explains” why the work is not valid or relevant.  I’m not quite sure whether the author is arguing for irrelevancy or invalidity. The author concludes, “The standard comes down to aesthetics, tradition, conservation of paper and space—basically, the fact that reading is an act of much more than information delivery.”

The author goes on to talk about how people can read sentences without spaces.  He says, “Thai and Chinese are typically written without spaces between words.”  He is in fact correct, people have a tremendous ability to and comprehend regardless of word structure. For example, take the common sentence “Thequickbrownfoxjumpsoverthelazydog.” Or this version “Th qck brwn fx jmps vr th lzy dg.” Or even “7h3 qu1ck br0wn f0x jump5 0v3r 7h3 l4zy d06.” Chance is you can read all these variations.

So, let’s ask since you can read these sentences, does that mean we should write this way?  Think about how much paper we would save if we left out all the vowels.  According to article Vowel Compressibility And The Top 5000 Words In English on average, 31.45% of all characters are vowels. Plugging the textbook Concepts of Biology from the open textbook library into Microsoft Word, we find that Concepts of Biology is 599 pages long with 253,113 words and 1,601,952 characters.  Doing a little math on Concepts of Biology, the textbook has an average of 2674.4 characters per page.  Using 31.45% of all characters are vowels, there are 503,813.9 vowels in Concepts of Biology.  If we left out all the vowels Concepts of Biology would be 188.4 pages shorter. That’s a lot of savings.

Let’s take our question further.  This paragraph comes from page 15 of Concepts of Biology,

“Crl Ws nd th Phylgntc Tr

Th vltnry rltnshps f vrs lf frms n rth cn b smmrzd n  phylgntc tr.  phylgntc tr s  dgrm shwng th vltnry rltnshps mng blgcl spcs bsd n smlrts nd dffrncs n gntc r physcl trts r bth.  phylgntc tr s cmpsd f brnch pnts, r nds, nd brnchs. Th ntrnl nds rprsnt ncstrs nd r pnts n vltn whn, bsd n scntfc vdnc, n ncstr s thght t hv dvrgd t frm tw nw spcs. Th lngth f ch brnch cn b cnsdrd s stmts f rltv tm.”

or if we are going to embrace the idea that spacing and vowels don’t matter and you can still comprehend the meaning then we can write the paragraph like this,

“CrlWsndthPhylgntcTr

Thvltnryrltnshpsfvrslffrmsnrthcnbsmmrzdnphylgntctr.phylgntctrsdgrmshw
ngthvltnryrltnshpsmngblgclspcsbsdnsmlrtsnddffrncsngntcrphyscltrtsrbth.
phylgntctrscmpsdfbrnchpnts,rnds,ndbrnchs.Thntrnlndsrprsntncstrsndrpn
tsnvltnwhn,bsdnscntfcvdnc,nncstrsthghtthvdvrgdtfrmtwnwspcs.Thlngthfch
brnchcnbcnsdrdsstmtsfrltvtm.”

Can you read either of the previous paragraphs? It’s posable you can, it’s also possible you can’t.  Try and read the paragraph; here is the paragraph as it appears in the book.

Carl Woese and the Phylogenetic Tree

The evolutionary relationships of various life forms on Earth can be summarized in a phylogenetic tree. A phylogenetic tree is a diagram showing the evolutionary relationships among biological species based on similarities and differences in genetic or physical traits or both. A phylogenetic tree is composed of branch points, or nodes, and branches. The internal nodes represent ancestors and are points in evolution when, based on scientific evidence, an ancestor is thought to have diverged to form two new species. The length of each branch can be considered as estimates of relative time.”

Was your understanding correct, could you read the paragraph?  Even if you could read the paragraph, can you honestly say we should write this way? When it comes to communication and writing, one of the most important things I ever learned was the idea, “It is not your audience’s job to figure out what you are trying to say, it is your job to make sure they can understand it.”

Therefore, if you are trying to communicate, you should use anything that makes it easier for your audience.  While it is true that your readers don’t need two spaces to read your sentences if it makes it easier on your reader, no matter how small, shouldn’t you do it?  As writers, it is our responsibility to do everything; we can improve our writings readability.  Next time you want to stick rigidly to a rule, ask yourself, are you doing it for you or your audience? If you are writing a textbook, remember its already hard to learn something new, make sure your writing makes it as easy as possible.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg