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News and Opinions about MS, Health & Disability

On duty with the grammar police

on August 20, 2015

Some people are so keen to correct others’ use of the English language that they often become known colloquially as the ‘grammar police’.

While I am not sure of the political correctness of such an epithet, it does seem to be a fairly popular way to describe anyone who has a tendency to correct the grammar and spelling that they see as an affront to our language.

It is an interesting issue for me to consider and write about as I find myself, figuratively speaking, sitting astride the fence. I sometimes agree with one side, sometimes the other.

Let me explain. Because of my training and years of experience as a journalist, I am not ashamed to say that pieces by me are written using what is known as journalese. Paragraphs are short, sentences are brief. They are designed to be easy to read and understand – unlike wordy scientific and similar technical papers.

Using journalese, I am not afraid to start sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘because’. While this is frowned upon as an example of bad grammar, journalists use it to keep sentences short and so make their writing easier to understand. It is used tor effect, for impact.

However, there are two ways of misusing the English language that I simply cannot bring myself to write. And these are the split infinitive and ending a sentence with a preposition, such as ‘of’, ‘with’, ‘from’ or ‘to’. I have seen at least one organisation’s style manual that says both of these are fine to use but, even though it is a matter of style rather than a grammar rule, I cannot do it.

It is relatively easy to avoid both if you want to do so. For example, if I had stopped the last sentence with the word ‘to’ as you probably would when speaking, it would have ended in a preposition. I chose to avoid it by writing two extra words.

An infinitive is easy to split. The most famous example is most probably heard at the beginning of every episode of Star Trek when the soundtrack says ‘to boldly go’. That one would be easy to avoid, just saying ‘to go boldly’ would be correct and lose none of its impact.

Some people genuinely do not know what an infinitive is, some do not want to know while others do not care. Fair enough, I suppose, but it is really easy to understand. All verbs have an infinitive: to be, to have, to go, to do, to write, to watch – and so on.

One of my pet hates, and this really gets to me, is the way that lazy speaking has crept into lazy writing. Or, maybe, it is not laziness, maybe some people believe they are writing correctly when they use the contracted or shortened form of ‘would have’, ‘could have’ and ‘should have’.

The shortened form of ‘would have’, for example, is ‘would’ve’ but I have seen it written as ‘would of’ and, worse still, ‘wood of’. Aaaaagh! That is terrible and, if they really do not know any better, it does not speak well of the quality of education that pupils have been given in school.

Am I a member of the grammar police? Sometimes.


3 Responses to “On duty with the grammar police”

  1. joanne jones says:

    i was always taught never to start a sentence with and or but because they are conjunctions ,therefore a comma would be inserted to join the sentence together, i hate seeing it ,but i realise it has now become acceptable although i don’t understand this, have they got rid of conjunctions. i also hate to see would of instead of would have, but i think the one I dislike the most is when people say aint instead of isn’t , to me it shows laziness and slovenliness. and if I was an employer and saw this I would think twice before employing that person.:)
    i notice I haven’t put a question mark after one of my questions 🙂
    not the norm though. !!! , although i don’t pretend to be perfect at English grammar, these things I do notice. 🙂

  2. Jinny Owen says:

    Don’t get me started on incorrect grammar usage! As a language and linguistics graduate I am very much irked by people’s apparent inability to differentiate between the contraction ‘you’re’ (you are) and the personal pronoun ‘your’. Similarly, I fail to understand why many people struggle with ‘they’re, there and their’. Granted, some accents aside, these three words are all homophones, i.e. they all sound the same when pronounced, but their different spellings indicate a different function within the sentence. The first is a contraction of ‘they are’. The second is an adverb and the third a personal pronoun. These are very, very basic grammar points and a person really ought to have a rudimentary understanding of their correct usage before moving up to secondary school. I think it is a very sad indictment of the British education system that a lot of people haven’t. This may possibly be the reason why such a small percentage of British people are able to speak a second language. If you don’t understand how your native language works, how can you possibly understand the workings of a foreign language?

    It also irks me when I read job advertisements and see things like ‘The company are recruiting due to expansion.’ NO! The company may well be made up of lots of people in lots of offices in lots of countries, but they make up one company as a whole and therefore you need to use a singular verb. So, instead, it should read ‘The company is recruiting…..’

    I really could go on forever, but I don’t wish to lead you into a boredom induced coma! Grammar Nazi? Definitely. All the time!

    I will leave you with one last thought. ’10 items or LESS’ Really???!!!

  3. Ian Franks says:

    Hi Jinny, thanks for your comment. Yes, 10 items or fewer – of course. Similarly, ‘there were over 200 people present’, NO again it should be ‘there were more than 200 people present’. As an aside, this post was originally written using the term Grammar Nazis but I decided to tone it down a bit before publishing.

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