Does it matter if grammar is mangled, if words are used incorrectly? What do you think? | Wikipedia


There were three exercise books for English language at school - composition, comprehension, grammar. There were rules for English, rules that had to be obeyed. They underpinned all written work. Error in a geography or physics text would mean a cross and a deducted mark.

Passion for and obsession with English came from the very top. The headmaster left his study on rare occasions. One was in order to teach Chaucer, whose English was from a bygone era. Shakespeare’s English was from the time of Elizabeth I. It was not the Queen’s English of Elizabeth II. What relevance did either have? There was plenty. They reflected evolution, a centuries-long process by which the English of the day - the sixties and seventies - had arrived.

The times, however, they were a-changin’. A-changin’! What was a-changin’? Bob Dylan, a poet for a new era, was one sinner among many. To popular music were added the cultish Beat Generation authors. Jack Kerouac’s improvisational style was interspersed with spelling and grammar that defied convention of the Queen’s English. Americanisation crept in. But when British pop corrupted the language to the extent which it did, great fears were expressed for the nation’s schoolchildren and the content of their English exercise books.

Noddy Holder and Slade, one might say, pre-empted text language - Coz I Luv You, Gudbuy T’Jane. Had the you been reduced to U, they would have invented it.
I’m going back some thirty years and to a memo (remember those?) that was sent to board members and heads of divisions. The memo contained the word “sort”.

It was an error. It should have been “sought”. This caused a good deal of amusement. That was all. The person who had sent it was known for her occasional English lapses. She was excused because her commercial acumen was greatly more important than the past participle of seek. Even so, this was a publishing house with an international market.

This English accuracy versus business necessity was the subject of a Tuesday discussion on BBC Radio 5 Live, a station for all sorts of voices, not all of whom are rigid adherents to the English language. Colin Murray is one. But this doesn’t in any way diminish the fact that he is an excellent broadcaster.

Does it matter if grammar is mangled, if words are used incorrectly? Some in business argue that it doesn’t matter. Effectiveness is what counts, and so it has been down the decades. Communication, verbal communication, doesn’t demand accuracy; or not always. The ability to persuade, to convince, to charm, to achieve the goal however this is spoken is what matters. Hard work, determination, tenacity; these all come in handy as well.

Can’t explain the difference between the present perfect tense and the past tense? Who cares?

For all this, it can matter, as it can depend on your interlocutor. Spanish use of interlocutor is more common than in English, a reflection perhaps, albeit a tenuous one, of the more visible signs of language rules in Spanish than in English. These signs are even more evident in, say, German. Verb conjugation and noun declension (including three genders) place a premium on an appreciation of the rules. A German who is fluent in English will look askance at an English interlocutor who fails to abide by the rules of his or her own language.

For all this, the spoken word isn’t the same as the written word. It comes back to that sort versus sought. Amusing it was internally, but what about someone from outside who may have received a communication with the same error? It’s all about impression. While some businesses may nowadays place less emphasis on accuracy, there are others who will be unimpressed.

Is it purely a generational thing? Perhaps it is, while it also depends on the environment in which one works, on the norms that apply because of ever greater diversity. Someone from the legal profession, for instance, will anticipate very different standards and norms to someone steeped in an urban street culture. But it is this diversity which adds vitality to language, as language never sleeps. Were it to, we would still be speaking and writing like Chaucer.

In our own world in Majorca, there are examples of adaptation. Take a word like reform. It is a form of Spanglish, as reform isn’t used in English in the way that the Spanish use “reforma” to refer to building work. Isn’t used in standard English, but it is here, and it is a more convenient word.

One can get too fixated on accuracy. But this said, there are still rules which should apply. Spanish syntax can be horrible, as sentence structures are so long that they can occupy entire paragraphs. That’s one beef when transferred to English.

More fundamentally, there are the basics or what should be the basics. Do you remember Lynne Truss and ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’? Oh, those exercise books of long ago. And I know, I’ve just written a sentence without a verb.