Grammar Makes the News

by Kim on February 4, 2009 · 19 comments

One of my secret (or maybe not-so-secret) nerdy passions is grammar.  I’m no expert on grammar rules, but I like to think I generally get things right.  Over the last few weeks, there have been a bunch of mainstream news articles that have brought up some grammar issues that caught my attention.

In Birmingham, England, city officials have decided to ban apostrophes from all street signs in the city because they are confusing and old-fashioned.  Councilor Martin Mullaney, the head of the transport scrutiny committee (what does that even mean?) said,

We keep debating apostrophes in meetings and we have other things to do. … Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed… More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.

I can’t quite see how proper use of possessives can be confusing, but to each his own, I suppose.

Another article I found linked from The “Blog” of “Necessary” Quotation Marks discusses the growing trend of blogs and everyday people devoted to pointing out grammar flaws.  The article goes on to suggest that the stress of recent current events has made people more likely to cling to things the can control, like grammar.  Clinical psychologist Pauline Wallin explained, ”

When people are under stress, they have less tolerance for minor frustrations… Think of the harried mother rushing around trying to get her kids ready for school who loses it when one of them can’t find his homework. Spelling is something concrete and has a definite right answer so it does make you feel temporarily in control.

I don’t know for sure if I agree with that — there were plenty of grammar-loving people pointing out verbal atrocities before the economy tanked.  Lynn Truss wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves in 2004 (I think), SPOGG (blog the Society for the Promortion of Good Grammar) has been around for at least that long, and I’ve been harassing my friends about the use of the possessive since I took an intense grammar class in 2006.  Go Grammar!

Photo by ifindkarma

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

bermudaonion February 4, 2009 at 11:26 am

I’m not expert either, but it does bug me when I read something with a lot of errors. Of course, I’ve found errors on my blog after I’ve posted something, so I’m one to talk.

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Kim February 4, 2009 at 11:30 am

bermudaonion: I know, I get all worried that people will get snarky with my grammar mistakes after I start pointing out other grammar mistakes. Kate over at The Grammar Vandal had a good post yesterday in response to the fact that people are afraid to e-mail her because they are afraid she’ll point out their bad grammar. I liked what she said, so I’ll just quote it here:

“This blog is about advertisements and businesses and professional writing. In short, writing that should be proofread before being presented to the public.

I care about professionalism. When Reebok omits a necessary comma in a prominent advertisement, I’m turned off by the brand. When I call a doctor for the first time and the receptionist at a doctor’s office says, “Was you in a accident?” I look elsewhere.

I value professionalism, and to me, bad grammar represents a lack of professionalism.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid that I’m mocking your writing! If you’re on this blog, you probably know what you’re doing more than most other people, anyway.”

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Sarah February 4, 2009 at 11:35 am

My dad received a resume from a woman who was a college graduate (he owns his own business). The cover letter began with

“I recently seen your ad…”

A college grad, nonetheless.

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Dorte H February 4, 2009 at 1:04 pm

I think my current English class would be very disappointed if the apostrophes were thrown on the scrap heap, because now they have finally learned when to use them.
When I want to teach them how important correct grammar is, I always tell them about the refugee who went into an Oxfam shop, wanting to invite the little old ladies to a meeting the same evening. What he said was, “I want you tonight”! – you should have heard them laughing once he had closed the door of the shop.

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wordlily February 4, 2009 at 1:32 pm

I’m pretty skeptical that the supposed upsurge in people correcting other people’s grammar and usage is because of the economy. I actually haven’t noticed any such increase in corrections; like you, I can cite examples that have been around longer than this.

I do think it’s funny that apparently people think they can control grammar, though. Even this theoretically rigid thing we call grammar has to flex, depending on its environment — the rules for newspapers are different than those for books, which are different from those online.

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Steph February 4, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Yes, I don’t think people turn to grammar when life gets tough.

When it comes to the reasoning behind getting rid of apostrophes in Birmingham, words escape me. I’ve never understood people’s problem with apostrophes to begin with, but arguing that they make it more difficult to navigate is just so ridiculous it’s mind boggling.

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julia February 4, 2009 at 3:34 pm

First of all, I love your ‘nerdery’ tag. As for apostraphes going the way of the dodo – thou hast pointed out the inevitable changes which occur to our mother tongue over time. Can’t but be helped, methinks.

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Christine February 4, 2009 at 4:02 pm

The apostrophe is “confusing”? The apostrophe, like all punctuation marks, doesn’t obscure syntax but instead enlightens it. And it’s not difficult to learn how to use it — I would think that the apostrophe would be covered in primary school, not in “A-level English”.

Look, the only place I’ll admit easy confusion is with its/it’s. And StrongBad even wrote a song to help us:

Oh, if it’s a contraction,
It’s just i-t-s,
But if it’s a possessive then
It’s i-t-apostrophe-s… scallywag.

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Steph February 4, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Wait, but isn’t it the opposite of what StrongBad are singing? Contraction uses the apostrophe (it’s), and possessive doesn’t (its).

Maybe apostrophes ARE confusing… ;)

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Christine February 5, 2009 at 7:29 am

Oh — yes — how embarassing! It is supposed to be backwards. This is what I get for trying to make lucid comments after too many hours of class…

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Rebecca Reid February 5, 2009 at 8:49 am

I’m with you: how are properly used apostrophes confusing?! That’s outrageous!

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urbzen February 5, 2009 at 2:48 pm

I think recession-related stress is causing me to really hate this kind of “trend journalism.” Take another look–the story contains no actual research, just a bunch of random assertions from it’s author and then quotes from “experts” to back it up. This is why journalism is dying. Or maybe it’s already dead.

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Kim February 5, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Sarah: Ouch! That’s pretty embarrassing. I’d forgive a typo in a cover letter, but that’s just sad.

Dorte: Great story. Good grammar is very important :)

wordlily: Yes, one of the blogs I read had a good post about how grammar rules evolve and we need to evolve with them. But the apostrophe thing — I can’t see how we’d evolve to get rid of the apostrophe and still make ourselves clear.

Steph: Yes, I don’t understand how they would make it more difficult. The article tried to explain it, but even the author seemed a little baffled by the claim.

julia: Thanks, me too :) I can’t see how one city deciding it’s confusing (for some reason) constitutes an inevitable change, but you’re right, language evolves and we must evolve with it.

Christine: Yes, that one always gets me. I finally got it together after a professor in school posted a cartoon about it outside her door and drilled it into our heads. Good times :)

Steph and Christine: Nice catch and correction!

Rebecca: Outrageous indeed!

urbzen: I agree, the premise of the story is pretty suspect, which I tried to point out in my short commentary on the story. I don’t think trend stories are irrelevant, but I do think they need to be backed up by data or statistics, a feature this article lacks. However, the article caught my attention and I found it amusing that grammar is somehow making it into a “mainstream” discussion. One last thing — I have disagree with your assertion that journalism is dying. The way we consume news is changing, and the way we fund good journalism is changing, but there will always be a place for journalism in a democracy. That’s a different discussion though :)

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theexile February 5, 2009 at 7:29 pm

At least grammar was taken seriously at that street sign meeting . . . but eliminating apostrophes because they’re confusing?

Grammar should be taken seriously because it affects meaning. Of course, grammar has evolved along with language. Read a passage from a 19th century novel, paying attention to comma and semicolon placement. Often very much different from how we use semicolons and commas — and, boy, semicolons and colons are really getting dissed these days.

From what I understand, writers in this period learned composition with the intention that the writing was meant to be read aloud, with punctuation marks denoting rhythmic beats. Which seems to me to mean that what was written was meant to be read carefully, something we don’t always do.

And don’t get me started on serial commas and the AP Stylebook . . .

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Dawn February 5, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Funny that the quote from the Councilor required an apostrophe :)

I love *Eats Shoots and Leaves* (not so much *Talk to the Hand*). Go, Grammar Girl!

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Jessi February 7, 2009 at 8:33 am

Being an English teacher makes me especially attuned to incorrect grammar usage. I have a bulletin board up in my room with photos of misused apostrophes, quotation marks, etc and I offer my students extra credit if they can figure out what’s wrong with them. Only one has attempted it this semester, sadly…

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Kim L February 7, 2009 at 9:35 am

I love grammar. Not that I have never made grammar mistakes but in general the rules always came easily to me, and it is like nails on a chalkboard when I’m at work and I see spelling errors and/or extra apostrophes on official forms and policies. Way to look professional!

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Kim February 9, 2009 at 8:29 pm

theexile: I hope you are in favor of the serial comma, if not we may have to come to fisticuffs about it :)

Dawn: Ha, I didn’t even notice that!

Jessi: I had a college professor who did that, I always found it amusing and it caused some good laughs in class.

Kim l: The rules came easily for me too, thank goodness. Grammar is hard to learn, especially if you’ve had it modeled badly for you in the past.

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Beth F February 14, 2009 at 12:16 pm

I *am* an expert on grammar. I don’t understand what’s so difficult about using proper grammar when writing public (especially government-generated) signs. I’m shaking my head and don’t even want to begin ranting about the zillions of errors I see every day.

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