Friday, January 13, 2012

Grammar Bores

Few bores irritate me quite like grammar and punctuation bores. Is there anything more pointless than pointing out someone's misuse of an apostrophe, or that they dared to cheekily split an infinitive? Yes there is. Getting worked up over it.

So, this week, when the book chain Waterstone's decided to drop the apostrophe and become Waterstones, we had the apostrocalypse. Lots of people, wailing and gnashing their teeth publicly, but in secret delighted because it'll give them a subject to bore others stupid with until the end of time. 'Of course, I can barely bring myself to shop in Waterstones since they dropped the apostrophe. No wonder people are leaving school unable to write their own names. Why have you picked up that cheese knife Dan?' There is even, I learned yesterday, an International Apostrophe Day, as well as an Apostrophe Protection Society, for Gods sake.

Why do people buy these books? The ones who do are invariably the pedants who take great joy in pointing out mistakes. They know the rules. So why do they need a book about the rules? Presumably to confirm how virtuous and clever they are, and how stupid and ill-educated everyone else is, and how we're  all going to hell in a handcart, which we might be, but it's because of irresponsible politicians, bankers and hacks and not people misusing an apostrophe.

Actually, I have another theory. They're masochists. You see, many of them went to school a long time ago. They were force-fed the rules like those poor geese that end up as foie gras, lesson after unending lesson, year after boring year, given hellfire when they broke them, thus scarring the whole of their school lives. Now, they see the youth of today, wandering around texting, facebooking in their strange language, and they read about these 'trendy' teaching methods that send kids out into the world unable to read and write (copyright: every right-wing newspaper) and it makes them bloody furious. These kids should be made miserable in their lessons like I was, they think. It should be one long tedious grind. They should despise school, hate learning, yet come out with a full command of the rules of English grammar, and feel the metaphorical cold slap of the cane across the palm of their hand each time they break them. Then, for extra pain, they should take a cold shower and flagellate themselves.

I exaggerate. A bit. But this debate (which I realise I'm only adding to here) has been rumbling on for years in the UK, where we have generations of folk who seem to care more about how something is written than what is actually written. A woman named Lynne Truss wrote a very silly book called Eats, Shoots and Leaves which advocated a 'zero tolerance' to punctuation and sold by the bucketload, followed by a raft of apoplectic imitators, each trying to outdo the other, lamenting text speak, and the Internet, and all other modern maladies which are apparently rotting our brain.

The problem with all this reactionary drivel, other than my point above about it focusing on style over content, and a very torpid style at that, is its inflexibility. The English language, the way it is written and punctuated, has always been subject to fashion and trends. It's how it's continued to grow, deepen and become so rich. And let's face it, some of the rules are stupid and arbitrary and deserve to be broken. Take the apostrophe for example. Kids learn it is there to be used for either the possessive or to show an omitted letter. Simple. Except when it comes to 'its' and 'its', when the possessive doesn't have an apostrophe. Why? Because of some rule dreamed up by printers and grammarians of the 19th century for reasons no one really knows. No wonder our children get so confused.  A sub-editor once told me there was no greater indication of illiteracy than misusing its and it's. To which I should have told him that nothing indicated a withered, closed mind like the sentence he'd just uttered, but I didn't, because that would have cost me my job.

It's all about clarity and avoiding ambiguity, the grammar and punctuation SS will say. Except it's not. It's about frustration and resisting change and development. Yes, people need to be able to make themselves understood, and presenting your thoughts clearly in writing is important. The main purpose of grammar and punctuation is allowing us to make sense. I believe in teaching people so they can control control the language they use, and work out which words, sentences and structures suit them and what they want to say best, rather than merely learning the rules and being fearful of breaking them. How does that help anyone express themselves? The odd mistake isn't a problem, nor does it indicate anything other than a mistake. English needs to be taught better, and a grasp of the rules is important. But the pedants and purists need to realise that language changes, and that's to be welcomed. Innit?


Dan - Friday


  1. Yep.

    I'm afraid to say anything more for fear I may make some subversives ('s?) list.

    Except that I still wake up in cold sweats at the thought of facing a surprise quiz from my sixth-grade teacher (Miss Reed) requiring me to diagram my sentences.

  2. There is a fellow I would love to send this to but since he has no tolerance when it comes to grammar, you can imagine how much tolerance he has to criticism. He is a commamaniac.

  3. Actually, I think we need a Committee for the Abolition of the Extraneous Apostrophe. In America, we see it's (for its) more often than we see its. And how difficult is it to remember that "it's" is just a way to say "it is," and if you can't replace "it's" with "it is," then leave out the focking apostrophe. But here, apostrophes proliferate like mold, inserting themselves into plurals (hand's, anybody? tulip's, anybody? puppy's, for Christ's sake, anybody?) And even when it's a possessive, it's frequently used wrong; there's a nice little Cuban restaurant near us run by a woman named Mercedes, and the sign out front reads, "Mercede's."

    So mark me as a grammar bore, but this kind of imprecision seems to me indicative of the kind of sloppy, lazy, imprecise approach to absolutely everything that's leading this country into the sub-realms of the twelfth-rate -- not to mention that it's an all-too-visible product of the decline of our once-great public education system.

    So there.

  4. Oh, what fun! I had a high school history teacher who used to talk about the grammar errors of radio announcers. She didn't like it when I pointed out that if you say ten thousand words a day, all of them off the top of your head, you will probably make at least one mistake. Waterstones has the right to be named whatever they want to be named. And people who speak or write a lot are entitled to occasional mistakes.

    By the way, as I get older I make more grammar errors. I would worry about it, but I finally decided that the best plan is to keep muddling through.

  5. I'm a grammar bore because my high school and college made a big fuss over correct usage. I think Waterstones can do what it wants, but I have spent my adult life writing reports, and letters to judges, and I was always careful to do it "right." Was that a run on? They were the bane of my existence. Language certainly evolves, but I'm afraid I'm with Tim on this one, just because...

  6. Thanks everyone.

    I didn't expect this to be universally welcomed...

    Tim, I would say there's a world of difference between being sloppy, lazy and imprecise -which is common and and a different problem in my honest humble opinion - and making the odd grammatical mistake. I'd like people to express themselves without fear. I think sometimes the rules and the strictness of them discourage that. Hence panicky apostrophes where they don't belong but people think they should. I'm with Joe - we all mess it up. I do often. Especially if I try and write on an Ipad. Those things are the death of good writing.

    pattinase - please send it to your comma chameleon. He can come, on here and disagree, to his hearts's content.

  7. Dan, I think you're mixing matters here. Of course language evolves, and so it should. But punctuation provides a mechanism for trying to ensure what the reader reads is approximately what you wanted to say. If each writer used different rules for writing, readers would be totally confused. There's nothing I dislike more in reading than having to go back over a sentence (which action breaks into the mental world the writer has created in my head) to try and figure out what the writer means. Although this is occasionally because of the words the writer used, it is usually because of the punctuation.

    The difficulty I have in reading badly punctuated prose out loud is enough evidence to have a reasonably consistent set of rules.

    And, dare I say it, I enjoyed Eats, Shoots and Leaves!

    Stan (cowering in the corner)

  8. Surely you've come across this famous quote: "An apostrophe is the difference between a business that knows its shit and a business that knows it's shit."?


  9. Whoo-HOOOO, Anonymous. I will promptly steal that and use it repeatedly.

  10. Ha ha Anonymous. I like it! And it isn't boring (even if it's patently untrue...)

  11. I'm a grammar bore because my high school and college made a big fuss over correct usage.