About three years ago, my husband bought a new coffee machine. It is, he assures me, a very good coffee machine. It is also, he has assured me about a million times, really easy to use. Once every couple of months he takes me into the kitchen, demonstrates where the water goes and which buttons to press and asks, “Have you got that?” And then the next time I have a guest and they ask for coffee, I reply, “Erm, I think I’ve got some instant decaf…”
I don’t know why the information about how to make a cup of coffee won’t stay in my head. I really don’t. I am an intelligent person who knows all kinds of things about a variety of subjects. But I can’t make my own coffee.
Would it be better if I could somehow remember how to make my own coffee? Yes. Could I learn if I really put my mind to it? Probably. Is it lazy of me not to learn? Quite possibly. But does it make someone who can make their own coffee more intelligent than me? Does it make them a better person than me? Of course not.
Some people aren’t very good at remembering things like where an apostrophe goes. Would it be better if they could? Define “better”, but in terms of clarity and upholding the standards of the written word, I suppose so. Could they learn if they really put their minds to it? In many cases, but by no means all, maybe. Is it lazy of them not to learn? Again, in a many cases, but by no means all, quite possibly.
But does it make someone who can remember where an apostrophe goes, or any of the many other rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation that pedants love to get irate about, more intelligent? Does it make them a better person? No, no, and a thousand more times, a million more times, no. People have different skills, different learning capabilities, and different priorities. If you’ve got through your entire adult life and no harm has befallen you or anyone else because of your incorrect apostrophe use, then you’re not going to suddenly set aside your time and energy in order to learn to do it properly. If you’re dealing in words, if you’re operating in environments where clarity and correctness of expression are crucial, then yes, you need to learn this stuff, or hire people who know this stuff, to make sure you’re getting it right, but using the wrong “your” on Facebook really isn’t anything to get your knickers in a twist about.
I used to be one of those people who prided myself on my grammar skills, and yes, I probably looked down on people who were lacking them. And then I became a professional editor, and I realised hooooo boy, there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know. And I, like just about every editor I know, have my blind spots, rules that just will not stay in my head no matter how many times I look them up. And some of the rules I used to be so proud of knowing? Not rules at all, just one of many equally correct style choices.
Editing has taught me to be kinder. Is not being able to remember the difference between “its” and “it’s” really that much different to not being able to remember when pronouns should be in the nominative case (something I have to look up every damn time)? Or, for that matter, not being able to remember how to make coffee?
My brain is good at this stuff. Other people’s brains are good at different stuff. There’s never any need to be a dick about it.