June 04, 2013 - Comments Off on The art of committing grammar crimes

The art of committing grammar crimes

There’s a method behind the madness of spelling incorrectly. Sometimes a situation dictates that you break the rules to create new ideas and meanings – but at what cost?

A little while ago, in a Twitter conversation about #TheThingIHateMost, Will Ferrell tweeted: “finishing a good tweet, having -1 characters left, and then having to decide which grammar crime to commi”

Apart from wishing I had the wit and foresight to come up with something so clever and relevant myself, Will raised a good point. It’s a problem we’re all familiar with. There are times when you don’t have the room to say what you want, and it’s annoying. Changing the tense, dropping words and letters – even leaving out a whole chunk of the message – creates a range of problems.

Just recently Simon Horobin, an English professor from Oxford’s Magdalen College, asked grammar pedants to relax, while Professor David Crystal claimed the way we search on the internet will eventually cause the death of silent letters, such as the seemingly redundant ‘h’ in rhubarb and ‘p’ in receipt.

Whether it’s a tweet, a catchy headline or words to go on a poster – you can end up obsessing over a single letter. And as a Content Manager I’m faced with that situation on a regular basis. It not only affects accuracy but clarity and tone of voice too. Change one character and it could affect the whole message. Language can be extremely fragile.

As we all know, committing ‘grammar crimes’ is frowned upon. Whether accidental or deliberate, you don’t have to wait too long before someone highlights an incorrect spelling, an ill-placed apostrophe or a rogue hyphen (my pet hate is the unnecessary apostrophe you see in MOT’s and TV’s).

The problem I find with spelling is that, actually, it’s quite liberal. There are hundreds of exceptions to many rules, and new words like phwoar and omnishambles are entering the dictionary all the time. If you invent a word, and enough people use it, then our language will eventually accept it. How great is that?

Just the other day someone asked me whether hash tag is one word or two. My instinct was to say one, but further research told me it’s actually two. The same goes for road show. You, like me, probably thought it was one word, right?

If Professor Horobin is saying that “spelling is not a reliable indication of intelligence”, then what does it really matter?

In my opinion, correct spelling is not always essential. The most important thing is that the words – and the overall message – are clear and communicated effectively to your audience.

I believe language should be allowed to develop in whatever way its users choose. If more and more people choose to spell hash tag as one word then eventually it’ll become hashtag and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) will recognise it as such. The OED will add and edit words where clear evidence shows that they are being used in these new ways. The dictionary is not a closed book.

Professor Crystal claims it’s only a matter of time before rhubarb becomes rubarb and receipt becomes receit because that’s how a lot of us are starting to spell them. So the rules of language aren’t as hard and fast as you might think.

If a language is locked down, so to speak, and not open to change, then it eventually dies out. While Latin may have provided the basis for a great many languages, it isn’t anyone’s first language any more. It’s an ancient language that once changed the world, but it has limited ability today because it wasn’t flexible. Language can’t be led by what’s written on paper – it has to be led by its speakers, since speech, in historical terms at least, has always been primary.

English has absorbed loads of new words, spoken by the Romans, Scandinavians and Norman French who came to these shores during the last millennium. Even today, new words are still popping up all over the place due to the way we use the internet and social media. This technology has meant that words like Captcha, cyberstalking, totes, bang tidy and amazeballs have all been added to the Collins English Dictionary in the last year.

Those of us who despair each time a new spelling or a so-called Americanism infiltrates the OED are only looking at a snapshot of the English Language as it is today. Look at the language in 1900, and look at it again in 2000. Despite the presence of a dictionary, it will have changed (for instance, today was spelt as to-day in the early part of the 20th century).

In fact, our language will have changed even since the turn of the new millennium. It’ll continue to change for years to come. Why insist that it can’t change ever again? If you do that you’re stifling one of the world’s most naturally creative languages.

So then, is it acceptable for an organisation to use the word ‘thru’ instead of ‘through’? If it’s in a tweet, where people expect shortened words, then yes. If it’s in a really important document, for a really important client, then probably not. Companies are now updating house styles and even inventing new ones for online communications, since this is where a lot of customers spend their time.

Ultimately, languages are about communicating messages and ensuring that the recipients understand you. Grammar’s role is simply to keep us singing from the same hymn sheet.

Breaking the rules has long been frowned upon, but that’s what our newspapers do every day when they write their pun-tastic headlines. As written language becomes more and more informal there are now more opportunities to experiment, explore and write in a way that best connects with your audience.

English is a flexible and durable language, which is open to change, and I think this is something we should cherish and celebrate – and have a bit of fun with!