Grammar isn’t everything

Remember that ‘grammar nazi’ sketch on Mitchell & Webb? The boss of a business calmly shoots employees who misuse or (mostly) mispronounce words and ends up killing himself when a colleague points out his own mistake. What is it about it that makes us laugh? The risqué idea of going on a workplace killing spree? Or is it that we imagine ourselves pointing the gun at apostrophe, comma and colon abusers? (Enough about my dodgy fantasies.)

There’s obviously something about grammar that gets under people’s skin. Newspapers’ postbags and inboxes are groaning with spleen-venting rants about this or that mistake that lazy sub-editors have let through. The ranters usually end up tracing the ‘problem’ back to inadequate teaching. Or a general decline in ‘standards’. Which of course were much higher when they went to school and learned how to do it all properly.

Take a look at this nutty blog from a businessman who says he won’t hire people with ‘poor grammar’. Then check out the comments. Typical combination of frothing anger and nit-picking. Hardly anyone’s thinking about what the piece actually says. They’re all getting stuck on hyphens and split infinitives.

Above all, they’re not seeing that good writing is about more than grammar. Grammar all by itself never moved anyone. Never persuaded them. Never entertained them.

So what’s really going on when the ‘sticklers’ hold forth? I’ll take a punt. People who dislike and fear change, but can’t do much about it, are latching on to what they see as an example of it and letting out all that pent-up fear and rage. It helps that the topic is something they feel they’re an ‘expert’ on.

It’s great if you can put your commas and apostrophes in the right places. And not get your ‘there’ and ‘their’ mixed up. Your writing will be easier to read and readers won’t get distracted by the mistakes. They’ll probably take the writing more seriously too. But that’s assuming they read to the end. To make them do that you need personality, verve, style.

People write best when they enjoy it. And they won’t do that if they’re getting an insecurity complex from their inner school master.

comments powered by Disqus