How Computers Mangled the Art of Writing

I miss the days of crossed-out words and piles of crumpled-up paper.

Jeremy Helligar
Oct 22 · 6 min read
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Photo: PxHere/CC0 Public Domain

My friends have been getting me all wrong for years. Many assume I sit around like a stern 7th-grade English teacher, with my figurative red-ink pen in hand, inspecting and then ripping apart every sentence in every text and email anyone sends me.

I can’t tell you how many texts and emails I’ve received followed by texts and emails apologizing for typos, misspellings, grammatical and punctuation errors, and global warming, as if those were things for which one has apologize. I’ve even had people tell me they avoid sending me emails altogether for fear of what I might do with them on the privacy of my own laptop.

Well, newsflash, folks: I’m only human, and I know you all are, too. I’m the king of typos, and I’m fairly unapologetic about it. I don’t have a personal copy editor to proofread single sentence I write before pressing send.

And why would I want one? In this not-so-golden age of texting and emailing, written communication could use a shred of humanity, now that we don’t rely on handwriting to impart it.

To this day, I have no idea or can’t remember what the signatures of most of the people I know look like, which is kind of pathetic, and not just because you can tell a lot about someone from their penmanship. I wonder how some of my old text- and email-era romances would have gone down if our last few tense text/email conversations had gone down on paper instead, if there had been several crossed out words alongside lapses in good spelling and punctuation, indicating someone who was searching for the right words to verbally express his emotions, someone who was being human.

I’m not saying I never cringe at egregious grammatical blunders like double negatives, lack of subject-verb agreement, and missing linking verbs, but there’s no need to proofread every missive to perfection. Typos and other assorted literary blemishes (within reason) can make emails seem more authentic, more real, more honest, more vulnerable — all qualities I look for in someone with whom I’d want to regularly exchange them.

An Argentine ex once sent me a post-mortem email I was certain someone else had written it for him. His English was good, but his sentences had never before been so perfectly constructed. I’m not sure why he felt he needed a ghost writer to edit all the personality out of the last email he’d ever send me, but the prose was so arch and stilted in its perfection that I didn’t buy it when he ended with “I’ll always love you.”

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Photo: pixy#org

So, relax, people. Feel free to send me emails written with a human touch. I promise I’ll read them without critiquing spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Confusing “you’re” and “your,” “it’s” and “its,” and “an” and “and” may produce speed-reading bumps, but they rarely stop me dead in my tracks. Everybody makes mistakes. That’s what makes humanity beautiful.

Anyway, I might be too busy rolling my eyes at all of the annoying deliberate touches — the smiley faces, the incessant exclamation points, the LOLs — to even notice the stuff you don’t do on purpose. Back in the good-old letter-writing days, did anyone use a colon followed by a parenthesis to indicate that what was just written was written with a smile, occasionally replacing the colon with a semicolon in order to wink? If you have to announce the joke after telling it, hasn’t it already fallen flat?

A few years before smart phones and texting made all those annoying communication devices epidemic, my friend Mara and I were already laughing at, not with, people for using punctuation emoticons, which are right up there with XXXs and OOOs in the realm of pointlessness. Perhaps we overdid it a little, deeming guys unsuitable dating material for piling on smiley and winking faces, but WTF?

Exclamation points are on similarly shaky ground. They’re supposed to indicate enthusiasm, and I, for one, love it when an email begins with “Jeremy!” But life is not a Shania Twain song title. There’s no need to end every sentence with ! or !! No-one has that much exclaiming to do.

So why end every written sentence with an exclamation mark — or five? It only makes the one that came after my name seem less special, less honest. I might assume it has nothing to do with me, and the person doing way too much exclaiming just wants to be liked by everyone.

To be honest, though, I’d take too many exclamation points to an overabundance of LOLs and its not-so-distant cousins. Has anyone ever actually rolled on the floor laughing (ROTFL) or laughed his or her fucking ass off (LMFAO)?

Few things in life are that that funny anyway. I prefer a sparingly used haha (just one ha is bordering on ridicule) — or just tell me how funny I am.

Sometimes when I’m sighing over yet another LOL, I start longing for the good old days when people not only wrote letters but they wrote letters that didn’t have to fall back on emoticons and acronyms to communicate what words are perfectly capable of relaying.

Did Teddy Roosevelt use emoticons and acronyms in his handwritten love letters to his first wife, Alice, when he was courting her? The 26th US President was not exactly known for his understatement, but I suspect when expressing his feelings to Alice, as he did in his diary on the day she died (below), he didn’t use a ton of exclamation points and “❤.”

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Photo: flickr

Back in the day, people were able to communicate just fine without the use of backspace, delete, cut and paste, and auto correct. Sometimes it meant crumpling up a page and starting over, making writing as much a physical act as a mental one. I haven’t sent a handwritten letter in years and I love the convenience and speed of computers, but occasionally, just for fun, I’ll compose an essay in longhand before typing it up on the laptop.

It gives me the same warm, vintage feeling I get when I write personal messages in cards. They may, in fact, be some of my most authentic work and perhaps also some of my best written. Those letters that are read in voice over during documentaries about events that happened centuries ago always sound as eloquent as any perfectly constructed email. I’ll bet there were plenty of typos in them, but not one single emoticon or LOL.

So the next time you’re considering whether to write to me and you decide not to for fear of being graded, reconsider. I’d love to hear from you. I promise I’ll shut up my inner editor, if you just let your words — poorly spelled, misplaced, and badly punctuated as they may or may not be — and not modern communication flourishes do your talking for you.

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Jeremy Helligar

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +732K people. Follow to join our community.

Jeremy Helligar

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +732K people. Follow to join our community.

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