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Beware the grammar tsar 29 October, 2007

Posted by Jay Ball in Uncategorized.
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One of the things keeping me busy at the moment (notice the appalling lack of posts) is creating a writing guide for one of our clients. The idea is to produce a guide that is one part tone of voice guidance, one part style guide and one part stuff-they-didn’t-teach-you-at-school-but-will-really-help.

So it’s within this context that this article in the Observer caught my eye. Essentially, it reports on a drive to appoint grammar police to assess whether the BBC is using standard English correctly. Under the proposed scheme 100 unpaid ‘monitors’ would note grammatical errors and report back on them to a central adviser.

The idea makes me cringe.

It stems from the notion that grammar is fixed, that it represents an immovable set of rules that must not be broken. Ever.

Grammar is, of course, nothing of the sort. At best it is a set of guidelines, a snapshot of the state of the language at any given time. Certainly, if you take a wander through most modern guides to grammar (eg the excellent Cambridge Grammar of English) you’ll see a picture of an evolving language where there are far more rules of thumb than absolutes.

The other thing that gets me about these kinds of schemes is that they tend to forget that language is about communication. They get so hung up on ticking grammatical boxes that they fail to answer the most important question: did it get the point across in the clearest, most compelling way? I’ve seen many grammatically perfect sentences spanning 50 words or more that completely fail to communicate any sort of idea whatsoever. Worse than this, they provide the reader with an easy excuse to stop reading and never come back. And that is simply a waste of words.

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