Grammar Cops and Crooks

Concerned about my finances, perhaps, a French pal of mine hesitated to teach me the difference between fine wine and the cheap plonk that I was more accustomed to glugging on a Friday night. “If I teach you to appreciate a good wine,” he said seriously, “you’ll never be able to drink that cheap rubbish again.” I decided to take the risk and that sparkling wine with real strawberries, not just nuances, became a distant but happy memory.

Fortunately, the revolution in the wine industry means that in real terms, I am probably paying less for a bottle now than I was 20 years ago. However, whenever I hear heated debates about apostrophe abuse or “txt spk,” I am reminded of that conversation with my friend and I wonder whether, when it comes to the English language, ignorance is bliss!

The bad news for grammar purists is that many of the rules that we were taught at school have now been relaxed. For example, you can now start a sentence with ‘And’ and use the word more than once in the same sentence. Some rules never really were: when scholars insisted that infinitives should not be split and that sentences shouldn’t be ended with a preposition, they were trying to bend the English language to conform to ancient Latin constructions.

Of course, knowing that some of your readers will most likely be of the old school, it makes sense to pay attention to these rules, but only if you can do it without upsetting the flow of your writing. When confronted with a clumsy use of the preposition rule, Winston Churchill is alleged to have retorted:

“This is the type of nonsense up with which I will not put!”

Many experts will argue that it is far more important to structure your sentences in a way that is readable than 100% grammatically-correct. However, good spelling is still as important as ever. A recent CBI survey¹ showed that 40% of employers are concerned about literacy and numeracy skills and a report from the Association of Graduate Recruiters² showed that graduates are not immune from this skills gap with 56% of the firms surveyed having concerns about a lack of “hard skills” such as writing, literacy and leadership.

Nobody is immune from spelling mistakes and even writing professionals occasionally succumb. Often, typos blend into the background when you have been staring at the same page for too long and spell-checkers won’t notice if you’ve substituted one word for another, correctly-spelt one. Rarely, the spell-checker itself is wrong. It’s always worth having your customer-facing literature checked by a second person who wasn’t involved in the writing – a polished piece will give your clients confidence in much more than just your writing skills.

1. CBI:
2. Association of Graduate Recruiters:

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