Policing Grammar


I’m a big fan of words. Been reading a long time, and was one of those kids at school who struggled with Math but sailed through English. It’s my thing.

So I dreamed of making a living from writing, and along the way I have worked in a couple of different jobs as a proofreader. Right now, I do it for my publisher, reading and marking up scripts. Spotting errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling, because if you are a publisher, you don’t want the thing you publish to have errors. Yes, language is evolving, but there ARE rules, and you want to get them right.

But look, that’s PUBLISHING. It’s a business, and the one I’m connected to is an English-language business. Working with words so long has made me twitchy. I passed a Day Care sign the other day that was missing two apostrophes in six words. But I didn’t get out my Sharpie and draw them in. For one thing, one of them might have been a deliberate choice for a business name, such as has been made by Waterstones. That’s fair enough. Also, it’s not my job to point out the errors – the signwriter/maker should have (it was a pro job) and if they did and the customer said “stet”, then who am I to complain?

The most common ground for forcible corrections is, of course, Social Media. I don’t get as much time on sites as I’d like, but I still run across dozens of things that look like errors whenever I log on. However, there’s a lot of things to consider before wading in with a virtual red pen.

Firstly, most people update their SM feeds on their phones. Phone keyboards are small and fiddly, and plagued with autocorrect. I know I’ve posted some things that are close to gibberish because I knew what I was typing, not what was being posted.

Secondly, people on SM should be free to express themselves in their own idiom. I know I grew up (mostly) in the south of England, with a Headmaster born before the Second World War. My writing and speech was influenced by the books I read too – Biggles, Enid Blyton, The Hobbit, Swallows and Amazons, The Dark is Rising, Earthsea…. It was a very English childhood. I can’t and shouldn’t expect other people’s language to reflect my experience.

Finally, I don’t know much about the people who are posting. Many are using English as a second or third language, and their facility with it is still far above mine in any other language. It’s presumptuous of me to correct their minor errors when I couldn’t even introduce myself in their native tongue.

All this came about when I read a tweet reminding people that correcting someone else’s language is a reinforcement of privilege and racial oppression. I know some people sneer at that as an exaggeration , but you know what? They’re not people who have ever experienced oppression.

We’re into the third month of a new year. There’s enough incivility in the world, with racism, mistrust and naked fear. I’m going to redouble my efforts not to add to people’s unhappiness by correcting them for mistakes that aren’t important. I’ll keep proofreading, though. Grammar and language have rules, and though they bend and change over time, they are there to help comprehension. When I took German in school, I had to learn a lot of grammar rules, and they don’t all make sense, otherwise there wouldn’t be a category called “irregular verbs”. This is not just an English problem. But when I went to Germany, the locals listened to my attempts to speak their language and they answered me with compassion, not correction. It was a kind act, and much appreciated.

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