A recent study claimed that spelling and grammar among 16-year-old boys and girls taking their GCSEs is at its worst in 30 years. Spelling and grammar is also easily at its worst among grown-up men and women working in the City.
By way of illustration, here is an excerpt from an email sent to me by a PR agency:
“One author is proposing taking this a step further, alternative democracy a complete break away from the norm where the populous plays an active role in political decision making. In a tale of lust, deceit, power, and control that will leave you breathless.
XXX is a political novel with a twist, for more information on XXX, to receives a copy of the novel or interview the author please do get in touch.”
Why do we forget that we are human beings with the divine gift of articulate speech? Not my words, by the way – George Bernard Shaw’s. Shaw also urged us to remember that our native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton.
One may argue that City workers do not aspire to be Shakespeare: they use language simply to get information across, and there is therefore no point in adhering to rigid grammatical rules.
Read more: How to speak normally in a world of cliches
But if we follow this logic, what’s the point of any accumulated body of knowledge? Language is not an exact science, but it is supremely rigorous. Spelling however we feel is akin to throwing numbers around randomly in maths.
Another argument which I sometimes hear is that spelling and grammar interfere with creativity and freedom of expression.
Well, if we want to start bending language like Joyce or TS Eliot, we need perfect command of its rules in the first place – just like Joyce and TS Eliot. Otherwise we are not inventing the linguistic avant-garde, we are just being incoherent.
Good grammar shows background, erudition, professionalism. Class. Bad grammar is indicative of all the opposite characteristics: just compare and contrast the tweets of Donald Trump and European Council president Donald Tusk. And Tusk is not even writing in his native language.
So here are a few common mistakes:
- “You and I” versus “you and me”. The former is a subject, whereas the latter is an object used in a dative case. So it’s “Bob and I are going to the meeting”, but “The client invited Bob and me to the meeting”; “Pete and I are sending an email”, but “Send this email to Pete and me”. By using “I” indiscriminately, we are not being posh – just illiterate.
- “Who” versus “whom”. Again, this is a question of declension. “Who” is a subject, as in “who is coming to lunch today?”, whereas “whom” is an object in a dative or accusative case: “to whom should we send this memo?”
- “Its” versus “it’s”. This is much simpler than the gross misuse suggests. “It’s” stands for “it is”. “Its” is everything else.
When I pitched this story to the features editor of City A.M., he gave me a beautiful example of how just one punctuation mark – in this case, the Oxford comma, his favourite – can change the entire meaning of a sentence.
A tweet which said “The US President, a racist, and a misogynist” was followed by a picture of Donald Trump, a KKK member, and the guy from Mad Men. Another tweet, which said “The US President, a racist and a misogynist”, was followed by just one picture of Donald Trump.
This is the power of good grammar. This is the power of language. This is the divine gift that we possess. Let’s cherish it. Let’s treat it with respect.