Why writers have an unfair edge

Of course, if you actually write her a story, she might just think you’re nuts

Here’s a hypothesis pertaining to the men of OkCupid: those of you who can write well have an unfair advantage over those who can’t. For a man of OkCupid to be able to write well is a bit like a girl of OkCupid having mastered the MySpace angle – it doesn’t matter how obnoxious you are in person; online you’re going to have the edge.

Now, I may as well come clean about my own biases: I’m not so much a grammar Nazi as I am a kind of mad, moustachioed grammar Führer. Misplaced apostrophes, tangled syntax and excessive exclamation marks actually make my eyes bleed.

When I see the word ‘you’re’ rendered as ‘your’, the absent apostrophe sears through my retina and embeds itself like a burning splint in my brain. When I go the supermarket and see the ’10 items or fewer’ aisle expressed as ’10 items or less’, I have to lie down in a darkened room for ten minutes while I weep, gnash my teeth, and pen a furious letter to a middle-England newspaper about the state of broken Britain.

In short, I’m the sort of person who basically doesn’t deserve to go to parties. And the pointlessness of my pedantry is underscored almost every time I talk to someone I know and like online.

A good friend of mine is dyslexic. On Facebook chat, she reads like her words lost a fight with a shredding machine. In real life, however, her spelling has as little bearing on her intelligence as David Beckham’s squeaky voice has on the goldenness of his balls.

I once went out with a guy I met while walking down the street. Warm, charismatic and sucker-punchingly funny in person, he did himself a disservice on the internet. If I’d encountered him on a dating site, I’d have noted his penchant for text speak and deleted his message on entry.

And indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if, buried in the mass grave of aborted proto-romances, there’s someone like that; someone with whom I’d be wildly compatible if only they’d chatted me up in real life.

But this is where it becomes a game of luck. You might as well write people’s names on a pack of cards, and date whichever one you pick out, hoping to God it’s not the joker. Dating is never that egalitarian. We’re so attuned to markers of attractiveness, that in the absence of real-world cues, we attribute an undeserving importance to whatever can be conveyed online.

And what can be conveyed online – conveyed by writing – are attributes like intelligence, or erudition, or articulacy, or imagination. Attributes that will frequently overspill their bounds into your dinner date.

Such is my rationale, in any case, for almost exclusively having dated guys whose messages were well-crafted.  Of course, all it really means in practice is that they’re good at composing well-crafted messages – a skill no more deeply revealing than the ability to do differential equations. A clever bit of self fashioning does not a great date make.

Reason no. 702 not to bother with online dating. Even I would take personal charm over semi-colons.


About Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands
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23 Responses to Why writers have an unfair edge

  1. stevesw says:

    Like the post. I found the Beckham anology construction interesting.

  2. I suspect that there is a pretty strong correlation between the ability to compose well-crafted messages and intelligence, so its not a wholly poor indicator of compatibility. Obviously, there are those that are intelligent that can’t compose well-crafted messages (and vice-versa), but that’s the point (as much as one can assign a point) of our search for attraction markers – the hope that this person fits a common correlation.

  3. SlowTome says:

    I think it’s only fair that as a writer yourself you care (deeply?) about the correct usage of language and expect similar of candidates you might respect enough to consider dating. I am certainly guilty of that myself. However, I am realising that on the spectrum of perfect command of my language I’m still only somewhere in the grey section in the middle – there are probably mistakes I make that I don’t even know about (misuse of hyphens? Commas in inappropriate places?), so it would be hypocritical of me to judge others based on my arbitrary level of English mastery.

    Almost (if not) everyone is going to make mistakes at some level – for instance:

    On the subject of ‘fewer’, Fowler’s Modern English Usage reads, “supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read ‘5 items or less’ (which refers to a total amount), and are misguidedly pedantic when they read ‘5 items or fewer’ (which emphasises individuality, surely not the intention).”

    However, I still stand by my right to draw the line at text-speak.

    • Abi Millar says:

      Misguided pedantry is my middle name 🙂

      • Nick says:

        Oh bugger, so you’ll be one of those pitchfork bearing split infinitive fanatics?

        Bit of a bugbear of mine, actually. I’m all for effective articulation, but grammar Nazism in this case can make for less natural communication.

        • Abi Millar says:

          It’s the sub-editing experience wot did it. Makes you professionally finicky. Nowadays, I feel duty-bound to include glaring mistakes in all my copy, just to keep ’em in a job.

          For what it’s worth, I’m with you on the split infinitives. Try too hard to avoid them, and you’ll end up with some cumbersome phrasing and clunky sentences. Good grammar ought to facilitate clean communication, rather than hinder it, and the second it stops doing so is the second pedantry needs to get the boot.

          David Crystal’s good on this.

          Right – enough with the linguistic geekery. I’m off to lunch.

          • Nick says:

            Yes. That’s why the split infinite rule needs to be ditched post haste. It’s personal for me as an old boss was constantly correcting split infinitives that I was well aware of. I tried arguing the toss, but to no avail, and so my beautiful prose was rendered clunky!

            Otherwise, like you I do tend to judge, unless grammatical shortcuts make for clean communication. But if someone is otherwise articulate and interesting, I’ll overlook most errors, which will mainly just be typos in any case.

            As for David Crystal, how could one doubt someone with such an extravagant, luxuriant, beard – he is precisely what a linguistic guru should look like.

            • Anonymous says:

              The split infinitive rule WAS ditched about 12 years ago, I believe. It hasn’t been a “rule” for a long time.

  4. Raven Garcia says:

    Some of these errors are incredibly frustrating. My particular pet hates are “lose” commonly misspelled as “loose”, and the interchanging of “to and “too”. What’s worrying is that I’ve started seeing these mistakes appear in local newspapers and in letters from my company; “If you don’t use up your holiday you will loose it” – etc.

    But allow me to congratulate you on a very well written article!

    • Abi Millar says:

      Oh, I HATE ‘lose’ spelt as ‘loose’. Particularly in the context of ‘loosing weight’. I don’t see to/too confusions all that often, but when I have it’s made me mildly homicidal.

      Talking of ‘it’s’ – that word is most definitely NOT interchangeable with ‘its’.

      Glad I’m not the only one who needs to get out more 🙂

  5. Natalie says:

    I totally echo this. I’d like to be able to just overlook it, and I know people make mistakes. If someone writes me a well-considered, lengthy message in which they’ve misused your/you’re once, I can overlook it. But if the message is something along the lines of “your really hot lets go for a drink?” then I hit delete immediately.

    Conversely, I was discussing you with a date this morning. We’re both a 99% match with you, and he is contemplating messaging you so he can get a write-up. I think OKC has damaged me psychologically; when I joined a was a heterosexual, self-professed monogamist, now I’m a bisexual considering polyamory. Non-monogamous men seem to be the only men that I’m attracted to that are capable of intimacy and don’t play silly games!

    • Abi Millar says:

      Feeling your pain. There seem to be lots of polyamorous people on OkC – I wonder how many of them started out with the monogamous thing and just got fed up of all the bullshit?!

      For what it’s worth, your version of psychological damage sounds more interesting than mine. Mine is manifesting itself mostly as defeatism, combined with a deep and abiding suspicion of anyone who seems to like me. Am working on my maiden aunt persona as we speak – so far I’m thinking one part Miss Havisham to one part Dorothy Parker to eight parts Patty and Selma.

      Plan B, of course, is running away to join the circus 🙂

  6. Natalie says:

    Yes, it is interesting isn’t. Before I joined OKC I’d never even heard the term polyamory. Now they seem to be the only attractive (physically and intellectually), challenging men who are capable of some kind of emotional intimacy. Every other one I’ve met that claims to ‘do’ proper relationships that I’ve liked has turned out to be a massive game player or had huge emotional baggage. When I’m not considering non-monogamy, I’m totally with you on the defeatism. When someone messages/IMs me I get the “here we go AGAIN” feeling. I feel like I should devise a questionnaire for them to fill out before I even reply. In fact, I might go and work on that…

    Let me know which circus has vacancies!

    • Nick says:

      I hesitate to post this. Polyamory is something that I have a passing acquaintance with, and I think the reason why you find a greater intimacy is because it’s something that requires more thought, more communication, and a greater understanding of emotional splitting. And done right it can work well. Not for me as it turns out, but the challenge and the lessons learned have made me mature, and more honest in monogamous relationships.

      • Natalie says:

        Yes, I think you’re right, there just seems to be more respect, honesty and openness in those kinds of interactions/relationships than I’ve experienced with other ‘monogamous’ men I have encountered. I don’t know if it would work for me in terms of being in love with someone and being in a poly relationship with them, but I am happy to date men who identify as non-monogamous, so we’ll see. I think most people would benefit from being more honest with themselves and the people they meet about what they actually want…

  7. Brian says:

    Interesting post.

    Perhaps its my grammar thats the issue, then. Its really rather depressing though online for a guy, I have to say. You’re fortunate to be in a position to be so discerning! 😉

  8. Matt says:

    ‘ere Abbey, wot is yur prob miz me writin and spellin lik diz ? B4 me cum ere I fellt all de boyz an gurlzs wrot lik dis an dat txt spk is all der norm – yuz doo noses wat I is getting at – yar?
    If I writ Lik diS, I am hip and hapenin !!!! and chicks luv me – you iz hot lets go 4 shots and currie

  9. James says:

    I have friends who have successfully completed degree courses and I know they can write. Online, however, they write in txt spk. Infuriating. And yes, ‘loose’ instead of ‘lose’ drives me up the wall.

  10. Neeneko says:

    Heh. Is it bad that my first reaction to this piece was ‘well, that was a strange use of the word ‘rendered”

    This whole piece though touches on one of my sore spots. I have a form of dyslexia, my fine pattern recognition is pretty badly scrambled… you can give me a word with the letters out of order (or even sometimes entire sentences with words in the wrong places) and a good chunk of the time I will not notice. Same with my writing, so a lot of what I say comes out strangely and proofreading does not do much. I am often accused of being stupid because of this….

    The other piece is that I have a background including linguistics…. ah linguistics, the bane of english majors and writers everywhere… why? Because in that field they teach the raw language patterns rather then the current protocol.. so often when I run into grammer nazis my reaction tends to be ‘well, X is the current style, but it is no more correct as per the actual rules of english then Y, in fact X can be traced back to blah blah blah’. Ironically I am dating an english professor…

  11. desack says:

    Okcupid is a joke. I really do not understand why people would spend any time on there. When I moved to a new city I tried it out for a little while, because I did not know any people. As a male I found that it was far, far more difficult to meet people online than in person. To make it at all worthwhile I think it would have to be at the very least equally difficult to meet people online and in person.

    The response rate that men get when sending messages is just too low. Personally I had a decent profile, and good pictures. I am well above average when it come to the pure physical attractiveness of myself in the pictures I used. I had a response rate above what the site listed as the average for males, but it is still too low to be worthwhile in my opinion. I found myself sending messages to people that were far less attractive physically than almost anybody I would ever hit on in person, and many of them had no information on their profiles. Obviously other people do this too since many women receive numerous messages without any information on their page. Even with that you get people like this author who claim that they are turned off by bad grammar, or some other ridiculous rationalization. In reality they look at the picture, don’t like it, and move on. I hate to say it, but there is a reason so many men treat women so poorly.

    Instead of spending hours online trying to meet women guys should just work 2-3 extra hours a month and use the money and time to go to a coffee shop or bar alone to meet women.

  12. NickQ says:

    I just saw your OKCupid profile which then led me here.

    I was wondering the other day whether a rhetorical question should have a question mark. Do you have any thoughts on this?

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