Loretta Barnard

As a Grammar Purist, You’re (Not Your) My Problem

As far as I’m concerned, there is always a place for correct grammar. And yes, it does matter.

 

There are plenty of people out there who mentally recoil at the use of poor grammar, bad spelling, and incorrect usage of words such as using verbs as nouns. I confess to being one of them. I appreciate words can and do change their grammatical functions over time – as Australian writer and educator Stephen Murray-Smith once said, “… language has always outwitted the grammar that has been imposed on it ….” But if I hear “impact” as a verb? Mmm, let’s just say it’s a deeply unpleasant experience.

As for misplaced apostrophes, what a nightmare. Don’t get me started on “its” and “it’s” – too late! Seriously, it’s not difficult. If the word is an abbreviation of “it is” then it is “it’s.” Everything else is “its.” When in doubt, many people just plonk an apostrophe in a word willy-nilly. Take a moment to think about whether it’s necessary and if so, where it goes. Here’s a tip: the apostrophe has absolutely nothing to do with forming plurals – but try telling that to the guy in the fruit shop who insists on writing “apple’s $3 a pound.” Have you ever taken the dog to the park and read with horror the directive “no dog’s allowed?” (Allowed to do what? one wonders.) Or tried to take your shopping to the car and shuddered at the sign saying “no cart’s past this point?”

It gets me in a little tizzy, much to the chagrin of my spouse who, incidentally, is always saying “which” when he means “that,” making for some heated grammatical tiffs. “People say ‘which’ all the time, so it’s acceptable,” he crows. “Doesn’t make it right,” I respond, winning the argument hands down – well, in my own mind anyway.

One of my pet hates is when people say “less” when they should be saying “fewer.” Yelling at the television when this happens is probably a sign that there’s a tiny obsessive streak running through my veins, because when someone announces that a particular brand of ice cream has less calories than other brands, I’m spitting chips even if I’m mixing my metaphors.

When someone uses “their” in a sentence when they should have used “there” or worse “they’re,” I’m sighing with irritation. When I hear that someone is “literally over the moon,” I roll my eyes, tutting all the while. When I see in a book the phrase “he could of” instead of “he could have,” I’m almost apoplectic. Did the publisher of that book decide not to hire an editor?

Then there’s the misuse of “your” and “you’re,” “discreet” and “discrete,” “poor” and “pour” and “pore,” “here” and “hear,” wayward capital letters, and words that have somehow lost their correct meaning and taken on another. “Disinterested” is a case in point. This word does not mean “uninterested,” it really doesn’t. Its actual meaning is “impartial,” “unbiased,” yet common usage has somehow given it a new definition and it annoys the hell out of me.

 

There are plenty of people out there who mentally recoil at the use of poor grammar, bad spelling, and incorrect usage of words such as using verbs as nouns. I confess to being one of them.

 

By now you may have decided that I’m a grammar snob, a stuck-up pedantic pain in the neck preoccupied with the rules of language, which really isn’t the case. Language is fluid and rules are purposely bent all the time. In the twenty-first century, it’s become less formal, more accessible, more immediate. Language changes over time (otherwise we’d still be saying things like “thou art an oaf”) and technological advances or societal fashions make it necessary to invent new words. From “bling” to “unfriend” to “bromance” to “lol,” from hashtags to blogging to “click through rate (CTR),” new words and phrases are constantly being coined and adopted by the general population.

But less formality shouldn’t mean we throw the rule book out the window. (See? I don’t mind beginning a sentence with a conjunction. Or writing an incomplete one. You know, to make a point.) And I know that being a good speller and knowing the difference between “Fred and me” and “Fred and I” certainly doesn’t make you any smarter than anyone else.

My exasperation with poorly written English is more about trying to maintain some standards, to keep us all on our linguistic toes and make us more aware of what a truly marvelous invention language is.

Because written expression is so much more casual these days, you may ask, “What does it matter if a piece of writing has serious grammatical errors? If the message is clear, then surely that’s the important thing.” There’s a great deal of truth in that argument, but why do we want to bring ourselves down by slackening our use of language? New words and a more relaxed and less formal mode of expression don’t mean we should discard the general principles of good grammar. We don’t need to torment ourselves over the subjunctive mood or dangling participles or whether or not to split infinitives. We can enjoy a laugh at malapropisms: “I have an amusing little antidote to tell you” or “please don’t cast nasturtiums at my friend.” But we should also have a solid understanding of this prime method of communication and at least attempt to support our language by using it in all its glory.

I’ve spent my entire professional life in publishing. I’ve seen it all: from the stuffily arcane and convoluted style of certain academics to semi-literate twaddle from people who should know better. I’m definitely much more forgiving than I once was, but no matter how mellow I may become, there will always be a special part of my brain reserved for neurotic, indeed finicky, grammatical correctness. So sue me.

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is an Australian freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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