Warning: this is a rant. Look away if you're not in the mood for rantings :-)
Clarity. That’s all writing’s about. Well, okay - not all. But, without clarity in what we’re saying to people, there will never be complete understanding between human beings. That’s an important point to remember about why we need grammar; why grammar’s important to get right.
As a writer, I tend to pay particular attention to the structure, grammar and punctuation of anything I read – there’s an incorrigible editor locked away inside me, I suppose – and when I come across one of my pet hate grammar mistakes, I almost always throw a Trussie and correct the mistake with a big black permanent marker pen. What can I say – I’m human and some things just get under my skin. And just like everyone else, there’s one thing in particular that sets me a-fizz.
I was catching a train the other week, and right on the wall three feet from my face, surrounded by some Troglodyte’s best graffiti ‘art’, was something that that Trog would have sprayed over if he’d known it was stealing his thunder. I don’t want to risk infringing on some advertising exec’s copyright, so I won’t reproduce the error here, but here’s another very similar example from a well-known UK TV cookery show:
Whoever wins, it’ll change their life forever.
It’s on pay TV. It’s played right at the start of every show. It must be right, right?
What’s the problem? Bad grammar. The sentence has an agreement issue. It starts off singular (whoever), changes to plural (their), then sods off back to singular again (life).
Clarity? No chance. How many winners are we really talking about here? One, or many? You may think it doesn’t matter, but I’m asking myself: ‘How many chefs can win this competition? Can there be only one winner, as the sentence starts off suggesting, and which would be far more exciting? Or, will there be many, as the middle of the sentence seems to predict?
Bad grammar = no clarity = lazy speaker = no respect for me as a listener/viewer/reader.
If the presenter really wanted to ‘card read good’, he would have said (for example): We’re about to change someone’s life forever.
What alarms me most is that this obviously incorrect (and often confusing) way of speaking / writing is becoming increasingly acceptable in media – newspapers, TV, radio; and in publishing.
A while back I flirted with a website called authonomy – writers upload their works, whether finished or in progress, and others read and comment. I remember pointing out a very similar agreement issue to one chappie who’d uploaded a sample of his novel, and who wrote for a big-time newspaper. He also claimed to have a qualification in journalism. Good for him – no, seriously; I admire him for caring so much about the art and craft of writing (communicating) that he’d dedicate time and effort to formalising his qualifications.
But this chap almost knocked me off my seat when he said that I was the one who was wrong; that modern teachers actually tell their students that it’s okay to write sentences like that.
What absolute rot. It’s never okay to allow standards to slip. It’s never okay to turn a blind eye to laziness – or encourage it, for that matter - and claim it’s the modern way.
We’re writers. We work to a given set of high standards and we must always maintain those standards. If we don’t, no one will know what the hell we’re raving on about.
If you’re a writer, aspiring or otherwise, read Lynne Truss’s excellent book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It’s probably the most cathartic text I’ve read in years, and it sets the bar very high. Please, aspire to achieve those high standards.
Oh, and for all the purists out there, I apologise for starting so many of my sentences with conjunctions. Here’s what to do: scroll back to the top of this article so that it fills your computer’s screen, then take a big black permanent marker pen...
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