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With all due respect: War of words

Every Issue

Cite as: April 2015 89 (4) LIJ, p.99

Your correspondent saw a cartoon recently captioned Apostrophe Rage and it depicted a language pedant lying screaming on the ground beside a shop sign that read “We sell pototo’s apple’s orange’s and lot’s more”.

Some would share that reaction while others might not realise there are punctuation errors or not care. Let’s face it, there are people who think grammar is married to grandpa and a subordinate clause is one of Santa’s little helpers.

This raises a question. Are grammar and punctuation important in a digital world full of “textish”, “netspeak”, acronyms, rapper lyrics and the sloppy language used by teenagers? Like, you know what I mean, like?

I don’t pretend to be a grammar expert. Although I spent hours in primary school learning how to parse a sentence, at some point the rules of grammar sneaked away into the night. I only know what looks and sounds right to me. I’m in good company because Mark Twain said he only knew grammar by ear.

You might wonder what this has to do with lawyers. As noted in an earlier WADR, lawyers generally do a lot of writing. They worry about grammar because their words might be read by a judge or a client who is a stickler for correct usage. Knowledge of grammatical rules might help you decide if a client made a confession when he told police “I didn’t do nothing”.

A few years ago Minnesota judge Robert Kressel was so irritated by lawyers’ poor grammar that he prepared his own guidelines. In a humiliating request to the state’s profession Judge Kressel said: “Please use the possessive noun ‘its’ and the contraction ‘it’s’ correctly”.

The correct use of English has long been a battleground. Writers split the infinitive long before scientists split the atom. Since the split infinitive is less offensive these days I will not boldly go any further with that.

Social media has given language pedants full rein to ridicule every time they hear someone use disinterested when they mean uninterested. This brings to mind that old joke. How do you comfort a grammar pedant? There, their, they’re.

If you are worried about your grammar skills British journalist Oliver Kamm recently published a book that could bring comfort. In Accidence Will Happen Kamm argues that grammar pedants are not protecting English from barbarian hordes and uneducated youth and he says no one is in charge of the language.

“There’s no need to scold yourself for being bad at grammar, because you’re not,” says Kamm. “You don’t need manuals to tell you how English grammar goes. You’ve grasped it already.”

Kamm quotes somebody called Henry Sweet as saying that the rules have no all-encompassing value and that whatever is in general use is grammatically correct. English is a living language, says Kamm, and if you are a native speaker you learned its grammar in infancy. So called Standard English is only one form. Far from being exclusive there are various “Englishes”, all of which conform to unique grammatical rules. He believes we should learn Standard English but be far more relaxed about modern usage. I can imagine grammar pedants writhing on the floor at the thought of that. And if you think Kamm made a deliberate spelling error in the book’s title to be clever you would be wrong. The aspect of grammar that deals with declension and conjugation is called accidence.

But WADR had to look that up.

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