The spirit of a law is always, always more important than the letter. Following the letter of the law is what turned Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into a bad thing. It started off as a well-intentioned policy of inclusion; prior to 1992 it was permissible for a military recruiter to ask an applicant whether he was a homosexual. If the candidate answered yes, his ability to serve could be denied outright. The spirit of DADT was to prevent that discrimination. The spirit was you’re not allowed to ask after someone’s sexuality and use their answer against them. The spirit was that you cannot be compelled to give information regarding your own sexual orientation and thus be prevented from service for doing so. The intended end result was that military discrimination against homosexuality was now over.
Then some asshole nitpicked the letter of the law and the whole machine just went right on discriminating for another 20 years. “It says you’re not allowed to tell anyone you’re gay! You told! You’re out!” Picking apart the wording of the law turned it around to serve the very discrimination it was created to prevent. To adhere strictly to the letter of this law was to be willfully ignorant of its purpose.
Naturally this can be seen as an argument for greater consistency and specificity in our language to prevent such confusion. The entirety of the debate about the 2nd Amendment can come down to the placement of a single goddamned comma. But if I left the comma out of the sentence, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” no one would mistake my meaning unless it was for the sake of either making a joke or to point out their own superiority.
An unavoidable truth is that language itself – both written and spoken – is constantly evolving. We don’t use punctuation in a modern society the same way we did 200 years ago, or 200 years before that, or in another 200 years from now, and thus we’ll never find an answer by guessing what someone meant solely by analyzing the specificity of text.
I spent a couple of years working in a corporate environment, which meant there were some people with whom I communicated solely through the written communication of email. I remember shaking my head at one woman who consistently asked for help using the words “Please advice.” The very instant I typed those words just now, Microsoft Word made a little blue squiggle under the word “advice” because it knows it’s the wrong word to use here. The word should, of course, had been “advise”.
But you know what? I knew what she meant. I could have wasted energy by throwing my metaphorical hands into the air in confusion. I could have asked her how I was supposed to offer pleasure to an abstract concept, feigning ignorance until she tracked down the nature of her minor spelling error. I could have reveled in how much smarter I am, mirthfully imagining her writhing in frustration as I – her grammatical savior – elevated her understanding to my own level of enlightenment. Instead, I answered her question, we got our work done, and went on with the rest of our lives.
The same idea applies to the uses of there/their, its/it’s, your/you’re, and to/too/two. Some people consistently use those words incorrectly, true, but never does it ever change the meaning of the sentence. If ever you’ve been bent out of shape about someone using the wrong homonym, ask yourself: did this cause you to misinterpret the intent, or did you use your Context Clues and figure it out?
For example: occasionally there pops up a debate of which city people think of when someone says, “The City,” the popular answer being New York City. But how in the fuck do people think those two words are said devoid of context? Has anyone ever begun a conversation solely with those two words? Why would you do that? If someone approached you and said, simply, “The City!” would you then respond, “Ah yes, I know which city you mean.” Or would you perhaps request a complete sentence that would enable you to know what they meant?
That’s where the grade school homonym lesson comes in. If someone tells you, “Your great,” or “Your sweet,” you wouldn’t be suddenly lost in the conversation. You wouldn’t ask, “My great what?” or say, “My sweet . . . apples? What do you mean? Why are you just typing random words?” Not unless you were being a dick, anyway.
I actually am sensitive as to why this bothers people. Some of us worked very hard to get good grades in school. We were told that communication skills were of paramount importance. I get that. I agree with that. Communication is important in art, in science, in relationships, in lawmaking. It’s frustrating to see someone succeed while putting in less effort, or with less care.
But criticizing a stray comma or an unnecessary apostrophe doesn’t improve communication any more than eating a pie on March 14th makes you better at math.
Seek to understand your fellows rather than criticize and dominate them, and we’ll actually evolve much faster.