Gay Mackie

In Defense of Grammar Authoritarianism: What’s Correct Is Correct

Retired journalist Gay Mackie is concerned about the slip of grammatical standards, so she’s vowed to do something about it.


I’m wondering what is happening to the standards of English grammar and spelling. Judging by the number of Letters to the Editor and various opinion columns in newspapers, others share my concern.

As a retired journalist of many years’ experience and someone who also spent several years as a secretary to industry executives and business leaders, the importance of grammar and spelling has been tantamount.

Even in my early school years, a great emphasis was placed on getting things right. Spelling bees were held at least once a week and students were encouraged to do well.

By contrast, these days it seems that anything goes. If print and electronic media can’t get it right, there’s not much hope for the rest of us. I know that some tertiary institutions don’t worry about spelling and grammar so long as readers, and presumably examiners, understand what the writer means.

Which in itself is a problem beyond my grasp.

I can, however, point out mistakes that I continue to see. My main gripe at the moment is the misuse of “that” and “who” which has crept into written and spoken language in recent time. For example, gleaned from an article in a major newspaper recently: “I’m a person that doesn’t want recognition. The guys that volunteer with me deserve it as much as I do.” Or, “A dog who escaped from his backyard during a fireworks display has been found three suburbs away.”

Don’t get me started on apostrophes. Many people simply don’t understand the differences between possessive case, plurals, or when an apostrophe is used to signify the fact a letter has been left from a word.

Years ago, I had the duty and privilege of mentoring a newly minted cadet journalist, a lovely young man who was having an intense love affair with apostrophes. He would attach his beau to whatever copy he could, though he couldn’t explain why.

He was also a most infuriatingly creative speller and would tell me, whilst studying for his degree, that his university lecturers and examiners at no time considered that a problem, a view that he didn’t share.

Just last week a newspaper article listed the number of “Opera’s” to be performed this season whilst someone else described his trip to the “movies’.”

And whilst incorrect spelling can be annoying, sometimes it can be amusing. A few days ago I noticed on a chalk-written blackboard outside a local bakery that fresh crossiants were available.

With the rise of Fritter [Twitter—Ed.] which brings the reduction of language to one hundred and forty characters or less, I’m unsure if this is just a problem I see as important (and whether there is a solution) or if it is the face of the new grammatical landscape.

The easiest rule of thumb to decipher the puzzle of grammar is this: if it looks wrong or sounds wrong, it will invariably be wrong. If you need to repeat, trust your instincts.

Whichever it is, I’ll continue to walk the line, set the beat of the drum in the correct way, even if that means the number of editorial pen strokes in my newspapers will continue to grow.

Brave new world.


Gay Mackie

Gay Mackie is a retired print journalist who spends her time at yoghurt, tap dancing, and asleep between the hours of 2-4pm. She'd also like to make it clear that The Big Smoke Australia Editor-in-Chief is her grandson.

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