Writers: Georgina Burke and Zoe Wildsmith
Editor: Zoe Wildsmith
“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don't feel right in my mouth.”
– David Sedaris
There's no doubt about it, we're fascinated by language. Hence the widespread sharing of images on social media, like this comic strip about an allergy to grammatical errors. (NB: We too suffer from this allergy, and it’s not seasonal.)
And discussions in the news, such as this BBC article about textspeak.
Perhaps the title of this blog post should be Why do we find discussing language so fascinating?, because it’s clear that it's the subject that keeps on giving.
Communication is common to most animals in some form or another (bees even waggle dance!) and as humans we’re unique in being able to do that via a complex spoken and written language. Even as a single species, our languages are many and varied.
What is grammar?
Whatever language we speak, there are rules and regulations that we follow to ensure we are all working to the same system. Hello, grammar!
We start learning grammar subconsciously from the moment we begin to string together our first words. “I do it” as opposed to “Me do it”, for example. We correct our children's language as they develop and grow... “No darling, it's sheep, not sheeps; it's thought, not thinked”, and the like. But these kinds of errors are proof that children are acquiring a grammatical system and applying those rules – plural -s, past tense -ed. We all learn the rules as we go along and we all communicate with each other just fine, thank you very much.
And so to written grammar. We are taught “correct” spellings and punctuation throughout our school years and then, for many of us, somewhere along the line it starts to evaporate from our increasingly overcrowded brains, competing for space along with what we are doing for dinner that night and the best way to get cat hairs off the sofa.
We start to doubt our own knowledge and wonder if we should be using single or double inverted commas. Or are they quotation marks? The real question is, if the grammar rules are broken, where does that leave the whole system and does it really matter?
If those rules are broken extensively then we might not understand the message a person is trying to communicate. There are many purists who take this to the extreme and delight in admonishing other people’s “errors”, or cringe in dismay at things such as grocers’ apostrophes.
But what does it matter how we say or write something as long as it can be understood – and is it ok that we started a sentence with but? When talking about language, we need to appreciate the contexts in which language occurs. Formal, written language such as a newspaper article is very different to typed text speak, for example.
If we tweet or send a text, we use abbreviations to save time typing and reading, but not at the expense of comprehension (usually…). We also love a good emoji, which is a different form of language altogether, and fertile ground for another blog post.
However, if writing a news article, or even a more informal blog post, we’d have to be strong-armed into typing ur for “your”. Most people understand the difference between formal and informal writing and alter their punctuation and spelling accordingly, often without even thinking about it.
Evolution of language
Let’s not forget though, that an inherent property of language is that it constantly evolves to fit the world in which we live. If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking and writing like Chaucer in the UK. We can’t stop this evolution but we can try to keep it on track by using the right grammar and spelling to suit the context.
Technology has introduced us to so many new concepts, sometimes it's hard to keep up with the new vocabulary and grammar that comes with it. Check out this great list from How Stuff Works that perfectly illustrates this point. How many words do you use on a daily basis that you wouldn't have known 10 years ago?
Occasionally, though, we need a grammar check – a helping hand with our written grammar and punctuation, to ensure we're not committing some heinous crime with a misplaced comma or em dash.
For those lucky people with the time and the space on shelves, there is no shortage of reference books and guides to refill your mind with the hows, whys and wherefores of good grammar. Head towards the reference and education section at your local bookshop and you will find an abundance of books to aid your journey to linguistic perfection.
You can't beat a good old-fashioned dictionary to check your spelling and most larger versions will have a grammar section for additional information. Couple this with a thesaurus and you'll never be lost for words again.
If you're after a bit of light reading, Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a wonderfully humorous approach to educating us about grammar and punctuation.
For those of us checking our written work on the hoof, we can turn to one of several online tools to help keep us on the grammatical straight and narrow.
Websites such as Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com or Grammarly.com provide an online grammar check, with lots of ways to review your work for spelling and grammar mishaps. Grammarly allows you to upload Word or PDF files for a thorough going-over, or you can ask it to check your text as you type.
Call in the experts
When all is said and done (and written), there is nothing like the human eye for picking out misuse of even correctly spelt words, phrasing or writing that just doesn't sound right, as well as silly spelling, potty punctuation and ga-ga grammar. At The Content Creation Company, our proofreaders are trained to spot the smallest of errors, and our copy editors can review and rework texts to suit the subject matter and intended audience.
With our extensive network of international collaborators, we can bring the right people to the right job, working in many different languages and cultural contexts.
This is particularly important when taking your product or service into a new market. Even where there is a common language, we can help you make sure your text is hitting the spot with your new audience.
As editors, we don’t know everything about the grammar of English. But our mantra is “if in doubt, look it up”. Being a good copy editor is about knowing when to question something, not knowing everything.