We writers have a reputation. Not for entertaining, informative or even sparkling prose. That’s a given. But for knowing – and more importantly caring – about things that ‘don’t really matter’. Grammar and punctuation.
A little sweeping perhaps but that seems to be the general consensus, even more in our smartphone-and-tablet world than ever. I’ve stopped being dismayed that the majority of my colleagues, for example, get by with just full stops and exclamation marks, with an occasional misplaced apostrophe, presumably for decoration. Or that they think past and passed are interchangeable. Or even that they commit non-sequiturs without batting an eyelid (who can blame them when every letter from their credit card company starts As a loyal customer, we’d like to offer you…?).
When Star Trek launched in the 60s and first split that infinitive To boldly go, imprinting it every week in the mind of every viewer for decades, a nation gasped. Well okay, a handful of writers raised an eyebrow. Some claimed that Gene Roddenberry was personally responsible for legitimising this particular grammar crime, a bit like accusing the Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction of popularising the double negative. But if that first episode premiered today, it would pass without comment.
The days of red-faced colonels writing to the Telegraph about some textual abomination or other are virtually over. But the media still trots out its staple stories every so often, about school pupils using text-speak in exams, or the recent headline-grabber when the apostrophe was abandoned by (and it pains me to type this) Waterstones. The country’s largest bookshop chain argued that, with URLs and emails, it was no longer practical to have punctuation in its name, a problem that McDonald’s and Sainsbury’s seem to be coping with okay. The irony of a purveyor of words making this decision, versus one of burgers and washing-up liquid, didn’t go unnoticed.
Of course, that particular punctuation mark could warrant an article of its own. The legendary greengrocer’s apostrophe persists, with market stalls up and down the land offering banana’s and potato’s, and the ‘abusage’ has spread with garages proclaiming MOT’s while you wait, minicab firms talking about their taxi’s, and even the UK’s no. 3 toothpaste brand running a poster campaign with the bizarre headline Dentists look after your teeth. Who looks after theirs’?
But it’s the Waterstones-style ditching of the apostrophe that is surely the most worrying trend. Keep your eye open in any high-street store that sells clothing and you’ll see mens, womens and childrens everywhere – words which can’t even exist without an apostrophe. The justification is that they’re simplifying the language, which is nothing new: Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw (writers!) both campaigned for reforming English, mostly spelling, with Shaw even leaving most of his money to the cause. But simple or not, it’s still wrong.
I could teach anyone about the apostrophe rules in 10 minutes. Well, almost anyone. But if people aren’t taught grammar in schools, and it seems they’re not, how can they be expected to know? Those whose English is good tend to be the ones who are interested in language and want to know the finer details. Those who claim, phone in hand, that none of it matters will carry on with phonetic spelling and zero punctuation. And they’re in the majority.
So does all this mean that insistence on ‘good English’ is a thing of the past? Of course not. The truth is that there are different standards for different contexts, as there always has been: there’s little difference between someone texting your instead of you’re today and Shakespeare spelling the same word three different ways (after all, his name does anagram to I am a weakish speller). As long as the people paid to get the written word across know their stuff, we’re fine. Good and correct writing will always be the benchmark, and carry the cachet and assumed intelligence that sloppy writing never will.
I hope that entertained, informed or even sparkled. How ironic that I could have saved myself the trouble and summed it up with a recent Facebook meme that put it so beautifully: Grammar is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.