When do harmless mistakes matter?

harmless mistakes matterThere’s little surer way of asking for trouble than arguing about rules that are routinely ignored by the masses. A mixture of ignorance and apathy can lead to the dismissal of all sorts of rules in life – some that don’t warrant attention, others that, if you really think about it, should be upheld. This is as true with the English language as anywhere else – where there are mistakes which matter and mistakes that don’t. A recent trip to a bar and restaurant highlighted the difference for me.

When is a harmless mistake really a problem?

I personally believe in a lot of English language rules – where the structure and uniformity they provide are there to aid understanding. English is a fluid thing, though, and by necessity it adapts to popular use, even when popular use might be considered technically wrong. There are countless harmless mistakes that have crept into the language as a given. To use a regional example (essentially an Anglo-American difference), I get irked by a phrase like most everything, but I also appreciate it’s popularly understood. Convincing someone not to say most everything is unlikely to change the way that person is understood at any point in their life, it will just give them a certain level of antipathy towards you (varying depending on your skills in diplomacy).

There’s a line, though, where these harmless mistakes are worth arguing. It can be a subtle effect – it doesn’t have to start wars or lead to the deaths of puppies. It’s simply the line where the mistake causes a problem. And problems, of course, are subjective. A phrase like most everything might cause momentary pause, but realistically no more than any other regional variation in language might; it’s no worse than a strong accent, it’s just something people say differently. That’s not a problem worth losing friends over, if you consider it a problem at all.

Errors in apostrophes are a more heated area for debate. Generally they are harmless mistakes; your market stall’s 4 banana’s for £1 is a problem for the frustrations of grammar purists but no one else. There’s no room for misinterpretation here. That’s essentially the definition of the mistake being harmless.

Yet whether or not something will be misunderstood isn’t the whole point. Market stalls, for example, might use such apostrophes by tradition, no one stops to think that’s not right. Put it in a high-class restaurant menu, though, and you’d certainly be furrowing brows in a way that could affect your business. And people might still understand your point, but then they start caring that it wasn’t more accurately put.

A super dramatic real world example!

Disclaimer – example is not dramatic.

I was in a bar and restaurant in London recently meeting friends. I won’t name names (a free Emoji to anyone who can guess the place), but this particular establishment had, for some reason, chosen to present their name between apostrophes: ‘Name’. Now, apostrophes around words or phrases generally denote quotation marks, to mean “according to”. If people do this, instead, to create emphasis, it rarely has the desired effect (often the opposite – consider sending a memo saying “I want to see ‘big’ results”).

In this case, I was willing to give the place the benefit of the doubt and think, well, the name could be considered colloquial, a local moniker perhaps, in which case the apostrophes are the equivalent of saying “Hey, here’s what we call ourselves.” Like if I was to say “Hi, My name is Philip but you can call me ‘Phil’.” And even if they were trying to do it for emphasis, really, who cares.

That wasn’t the end of it, though – going through the rest of the building, it became apparent that this ‘apostrophe enclosed style’ had been inexplicably applied to all the labels on door. An obvious attempt to extend the branding of the place’s name, I had to wonder if the people responsible had given any thought to how this haphazard punctuation was supposed to be interpreted. The toilets ‘Male’, ‘Female’, in apostrophes – according to who? ‘Private’, ‘Staff Only’, in apostrophes, are they suggesting these labels are open to interpretation?

An unfortunate bit of branding, to my mind – not likely to cause confusion but not making much sense. Do the rules matter here though? To me it was a moment’s irritation but something I was happy to drop. A case of, well that’s foolish but leave them to it. Not yet a problem.

So when did it become important? The dramatic result would be if some half-cut reveller lumbered through the ‘Private’ door, thinking it wasn’t serious, and saw something they really shouldn’t have. And hopefully one day that will happen, but who knows. But what actually changed my mind on whether or not this was a problem was this:

I let the issue lie, but one of my friends did not. He came back from the toilets saying that the way the door titles were written suggested the toilets weren’t just for Males or Females. He has nothing to do with working in language and doesn’t write blogs about why people should be considerate of language rules, so it became apparent this could impact ordinary people, not just copywriters. He wasn’t genuinely confused by the lettering, he was just peeved enough to make a point of it. And for the length of his hearty rant, our topic of conversation was the confusing and amateurish way this bar has chosen to label its doors. At which point, it should stand to reason, respect for the brand was plummeting.

Here, inaccurate use of English was part of the official labelling of the establishment. I can’t even fairly call it a mistake because it appears to have been consciously adopted, perhaps the writers of these signs even wanted to cast doubt on the labelling of their rooms – perhaps it was meant to unsettle. But the result, in this case, was for it to lead to people badmouthing their branding.

It’s not dramatic, it’s not changed the world or created violent misunderstanding, but this odd use of apostrophes has led to at least once instance of people disrespecting the brand. And that’s something worth paying attention to. If it was a rundown restroom with a sign saying Toilet’s, no one’s going to care. If you’re trying to be taken seriously as a restaurant, accuracy matters.

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