Pedantic point-scoring has little to do with good writing

Posted by: Dan Brotzel, Sticky Content

One of the most disappointing by-products of the comment thread – along with people's inability to remember what the original topic was, and the almost inevitable reference to Nazi Germany – is the smug one-upmanship of grammatical peevers and language pedants.

Here's how it might go. One comment will point out a mistake in the article. Another comment will then point out a mistake in the first comment. Then someone will spot a mistake in that comment, and so on. It’s a tedious and rather immature form of point-scoring, especially as most of the so-called ‘mistakes’ aren’t strictly speaking errors at all. 

In The Guardian recently, for instance, a TV review of Ricky Gervais’ Derek  suggested that the portrayal of the character's learning difficulties amounted to a rather crude assemblage of tics and eccentricities, such as Derek's inability to find agreement between subject and verb: 'It's always a dead giveaway,' wrote the reviewer, 'poor verb declension'.  

It only took a few internet moments before a commenter pointed out that verbs are strictly speaking conjugated, not declined. But that remark was itself attacked for 'treating life like a grammar lesson', to which someone else snarked that it should surely be 'treat life as a grammar lesson'. Another commenter pointed to the irony of muddling your grammatical terms 'whilst criticising the show for using crude grammatical mistakes as a cheap character indicator'. But they got told off too for saying 'whilst' rather than 'while'. And so, depressingly, it went on. 

In linguistic one-upmanship there’s always someone cleverer than you to trump your point, and they don’t come much cleverer than the experts at Language Log. In sharp contrast to threads like the one above, Language Log is one of the glories of the internet age. It's written by a broad church of academic linguists with the goal of bridging understanding about language between scientists and the general public. 

The first blog ever to have been cited in an academic paper, Language Log is not an easy read but it repays study. Many of the posts use careful argument, historical evidence and statistical data to expose commonly-held grammatical 'rules' for the prescriptivist poppycock they usually are. There's nothing intrinsically incorrect about using 'they' in the singular (as in para 4 above), for example, or using the passive voice, or beginning a sentence with 'and', or ending one with a preposition. You can use 'imply' to mean 'infer' (Jane Austen did, and the OED concurs), you can say 'very unique' (see Merriam Webster), and you can of course split an infinitive, as Shakespeare liked to. 

The point-scoring of grammar pedants -- and we've all been there at some point -- has a lot to answer for. On my copywriting courses I frequently encounter people who labour under the misapprehension that they don't know grammar or can't write properly because they don't know about split infinitives or they haven't read Strunk and White's Elements of Style (a much-trumpeted little usage manual that Language Log has little time for). 

Yet many of these people are great communicators of the written word. Good writing is about having something to say, thinking hard about who you're going to say it to, and working even harder to get you message across in the most economical, logical and user-friendly way you can. Good writing works hard to make easy reading. For my money, the best way to improve your writing is not to parrot a lot of dubious rulebooks, but to read lots of writers you admire. And the best way to have something intelligent to say about grammar? Start with Language Log.  

Posted by: Dan Brotzel, Head of Content, Sticky Content Ltd

Posted in CMA blog
3rdJun 2014

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