2nd May 2014

Under the Cosh of the Grammar Police

It probably passed most people by, but the second annual Bad Grammar Awards took place last night at the Idler Academy in London.

Described by founder, Tom Hodgkinson, as “a thrilling X-Factor for pedants”, the Awards recognises (or rather shames) writers, politicians and brands for butchering the English language, as perceived by the judges.

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This year’s shortlist included a number of big hitters for a range of grammatical crimes. Tesco, for example, had its wrist slapped for its “most tastiest” orange juice and its notorious confusion of the words “fewer” and “less”.

The café chain Apostrophe was derided for the rogue apostrophe in its slogan, “great taste is on it’s way”. Even shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt was put in the Bad Grammar stocks, for committing the cardinal sins of tautology and misuse of a semicolon.

They are hilarious, entertaining and good fun, but, in all seriousness, is the Bad Grammar prizegiving really necessary?

At university we were taught in our first year Linguistics course that there are two distinct approaches to grammar. The “prescriptive” view, taken by the education secretary, Michael Gove, and Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, insists that there is only one “correct” form of English. It demands we defer to an often arbitrary authority on language.

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The “descriptive” approach, on the other hand, recognises that there is a number of ‘Englishes’ all as correct as each other. It argues that what we term ‘Standard English’ is just another dialect, but one that has accrued a certain level of prestige compared with its rivals.

Proponents of this view, such as the linguist David Crystal, suggest that, as long as the meaning of the speaker is accurately conveyed to, and understood by, the addressee, little niggles, such as “splitting infinitives”, should not matter.

Both approaches agree that grammar is important. Without it, our spoken language would be nothing more than a string of senseless grunts and without certain standards, the ultimate meaning of our writing could easily be lost. But the Bad Grammar Awards surely demonstrates a level of unwarranted snobbery in the shortlist?

Apostrophe without a doubt committed an error, but we all surely understand what the slogan means? And Tristram Hunt’s tautological crime was surely one of style rather than grammar?

I am, in case you haven’t already guessed, a descriptivist in my approach to grammar. Though not above sniggering at abuses of English on Facebook, I do believe that rules like “never ending a sentence with a preposition” are ridiculous and unnecessary. As Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “That is a rule up with which I will not put”.

But unfortunately we live in a world where grammar in the prescriptive sense is highly prized. Anyone, be they a writer, a politician, or a brand, if they want to be taken seriously and ensure what they say has the most impact with their audience, must remain above grammatical reproach. People can fixate on a superfluous apostrophe or a missing suffix, undermining the writer’s efforts to get his or her point across.

Why bother speaking, if people aren’t going to listen to what you have to say?

Grammar is a perennial source of entertainment for many members of society and horror stories constantly crop up online and in the print press about abuses of the English language.

Short of there being a complete revolution in the way we approach our mother tongue, bad grammar will always be a bug bear and something that businesses, and others, should avoid at all costs, if only to prevent a row that can distract from their PR message. If in doubt, always consult a style guide. That’s what I do. There’s a well-worn copy of the Economist’s on my desk!

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By Michael Wood, Senior Copywriter (B2B)