Friday, April 30, 2010

Grammar Pet Hates (a.k.a. Boy Him Card Read Good)

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...


  1. "Conjunction Junction, what's your function?"

    Did you get "Sesame Street" in Scotland when you were growing up, Jack? That is one of my favorite "Schoolhouse Rock" songs. (I learned more grammar [and the Preamble to the US Constitution] on that show than at school.

    Well... after reading these two latest DUDs, I'm reassured that I'm in good hands. (Or--I am reassured that I am in good hands...) But... how come you used a RED pen on me?


  2. heh...only the hot chicks get red ;-)

  3. Kurt Vonnegut said be kind to your reader. He never said anything about good grammar or punctuation. You could argue that it's implied and, for the purposes of clarity, necessary. But I'm the journo, the old school rules are neither enforced or embraced with the gusto you've demonstrated above. I think it's fine to break the rules - I'm not a police officer - so long as you have at least shown you understand them.

    (its lee - I had blogger bother leaving this comment, that's why its posted with the anon. tag.)

  4. Thanks for stopping by 'anon' :)

    Yeah, that's a fair enough observation - I appreciate there's a necessary artistic or personal element to every piece of communication. But that's my point: it's communication I'm on about, not only fictional writing - and, just like driving, where rules are there primarily to stop us from killing each other, the rules of grammar are there to make it easy on the reader to understand the writer/speaker.

    By all means go wild with art. Why the hell not? But I think it's prudent to remember that not every reader can read minds (by 'they' does he mean 'him'? etc.)

    Thanks, Lee - great to hear your views.

  5. Oh, yeah... please approve my comment, Jack.



  6. Well, this has nothing to with grammar, or of being anonymous like Lee is. It has to do with poetry...and EVRYONE knows how good the Scotralian is at writing poems! Grammar be damned, and fair fa ye honest sonsie face that!

    Hey, Boy... why don't you pop on over to GAG and try your hand at a simple, silly, four line poem? You can even be anonymous like our friend Lee, if your knees are losing some of their hair.

    Snicker... I'm always amazed at how brave I am with 10,000 miles betwixt thee and me. (FYI, that would be poetry speak, Pal. And if you correct my grammar and tell me that 'would be' is not used correctly here, I'll... I'll... aw, hell.)

    Come on, now! What's the worst that can happen? I make a fool out of myself in front of YOU all the time! It's only right and proper that you return the favor.

    Heh... okay. Back up to Maine I go, where the sun is shining, a soft zephyr is blowing, and the black flies are nibbling at my knees. Hope you can join me.

  7. Thanks for the poem... one of the best entries, so far!

    Jack tried out his hand at some rhyming.
    His meter showed wonderful timing!
    He whipped up a verse
    With nary a curse!
    My esteem of this Scotsman keeps climbing.

    Hmmmm... see? Yours beats mine, hands down!


  8. heh...shame you can't enter your own contest.