Grammar huh? Comma what?
In a world that’s dominated by character limited social media and SMS conversations, is good grammar still important? After all, most of what we write now has such a short shelf life it’s unlikely anyone will remember what we did last month, let alone last week. So, who really cares if your grammar’s a little rough around the edges..?
Well I do…and I’m not alone.
The grammar crew
When it comes to grammar there are three types of people.
Grammar Guru – what the guru doesn’t know about grammar isn’t worth knowing…and don’t even think about questioning them, because they’ll be right every time.
Grammar Wannabe – know their grammar desperately needs some help and find using a semi colon is a just step too far.
Grammar Evader – simply don’t care about grammar and actively avoid it.
I definitely describe myself as a Grammar Guru, although I’ll happily admit there are times when I stop to question myself and consult the wisdom of Google to ensure I don’t make a mistake.
I’m a big believer in the fact you can never stop learning. And while the basic rules of grammar have remained the same for centuries, language isn’t a static beast. It changes all the time. As new words and phrases enter our vocabulary, they challenge the status quo and sometimes we need to take a second look to make sure the usage is grammatically correct.
Grammar is like a game of Scrabble
I like to compare grammar to a game of Scrabble…
There are words that are obviously correct.
- Tomato (noun)
- Red (adjective)
- Eat (verb)
- Quietly (adverb)
There are words you need to check in a dictionary.
- Confucius (proper noun)
- Breathtaking vs breath-taking (one word or hyphenated?)
- OK (a word or abbreviation?)
- Misspell (a common spelling mistake!)
And then there are words that shouldn’t be on a Scrabble board.
- Pre (prefix)
- POHM or Pohm (abbreviation)
- By-law (hyphenated)
It’s worth mentioning here that my husband and I no longer play Scrabble together as we can’t agree on the last category of words. He hates that I’m a stickler for the rules and allow the dictionary to have the final say. He’d prefer to think more creatively and come up with clever interpretations of words. So, to avoid an argument, we stick to Backgammon!
But Scrabble is also an interesting case of how modern culture adapts to old traditions. Scrabble was created in 1938 and the basic rules still state that any word found in a standard English dictionary is allowed. No prefixes or suffixes, no abbreviations, no words that use a hyphen or apostrophe, and no foreign words, unless they are commonly used in English and therefore appear in the dictionary. “Genre” or “faux” are both good examples of this.
However, the rules have been tweaked over the years and I was horrified when place names, people’s names and company names or brands became acceptable on a Scrabble board in 2010. To me, it removes some of the skill of the game, but I also recognise the smart thinking by the manufacturer to keep the game relevant to younger audiences in the face of new competition from video and online games.
Bending the rules
So, back to grammar and it’s place in modern society. There’s currently a far more relaxed approach to grammar in our daily language. Schools certainly don’t place as much emphasis on teaching it as they used to, and it’s probably only those who study the English Language or Linguistics that have a genuine appreciation for the complexity and power of good grammar.
But it does still have a place.
Let’s look at the inoffensive comma, for example. According to the Collins English Dictionary, the comma is defined as follows.
A comma is the punctuation mark, which is used to separate parts of a sentence
or items in a list.
Commas are notoriously misused – sometimes overused and sometime underused. Either way, the incorrect use dramatically changes the meaning of a sentence. The resulting outcome could be quite funny, or it could have disastrous consequences.
This well-cited example is the perfect illustration of how the meaning of a sentence changes entirely without a comma.
Let’s eat Grandma
Let’s eat, Grandma
Are you telling someone you want to eat your Grandma or are you telling your Grandma it’s time to eat? I’m pretty sure you intended it to be the second interpretation.
Here’s another one I saw on a greeting card.
I’m sorry I love you
I’m sorry, I love you
It’s unlikely you’d buy a card to tell someone you don’t love them, as implied by the first phrase. Instead, you’re probably hoping to tell someone you love them, in which case the second phrase is the way to do it.
This is just scratching the surface of the humble comma. And I’m not going to attempt to talk about it again in this blog. But these simple examples demonstrate how grammar is still essential to maintain order in our treasured English language.
Help is out there
Despite the best efforts of social media apps like Twitter and Instagram to destroy the art of good grammar, it remains present and strong in our lives.
Grammar says something about you. It reflects your personality and suggests an assumed level of knowledge. And the same applies to companies, where poorly written content can be extremely damaging.
If you share content with your customers that’s hard to understand or full of errors, they will make a judgement about you and your brand…and it won’t be positive. There’s been a lot of research in this area and big brands frequently publish spelling or grammatical mistakes, particularly on social media. It’s shown to negatively influence consumers engagement levels and choice of brand.
The good news for those who aren’t so grammar savvy is the introduction of software like Grammarly. It’s proved invaluable and is a simple way to check your grammar before you publish content to ensure there are no absolute clangers in there. It doesn’t necessarily help people learn what’s grammatically correct or incorrect, but at least it prevents too many mistakes finding their way into our everyday interactions.
Let’s celebrate grammar
While researching this blog I was delighted to discover that the US devotes a whole day to the celebration of grammar. On 24 September every year, it’s National Punctuation Day! What a great idea.
Schools get really involved, using videos and programs to help students learn how to use grammar in fun and interactive ways. And the Punctuation Day website has its own list of suggestions for how to get involved, including allowing yourself to enjoy a nice relaxing sleep in before launching into the day and circling all the punctuation errors you find in the newspaper!
That sounds like my perfect way to wake up!
No wot ur writing
It seems grammar is here to stay. While we’ve moved away from very formal and convoluted language in our everyday interactions, grammar still plays an important role in building understanding and removing confusion.
Although I am still a bit of a dinosaur, and I refuse to type “U” in a text message, or use “&” unless it’s part of a name, I have surrendered to the new shorthand in some small part. I’ve been known to write thru or abt in the odd SMS, but it still makes me slightly uncomfortable.
If you’ve seen some great grammar gaffs, or you think we should have a National Punctuation Day in Australia too, I’d love to hear from you.