Why get pedantic about “incorrect” English?

poor preposition choiceAs copywriters, it’s our prerogative to pick holes in language use, often overly so. Ranting about an insignificant grammar rule, fuming at unoriginal adjectives, these are the things that we could go to war over. The problem is, many of these issues don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. I saw the sign to the left at St Pancras a few days ago and momentarily scoffed – what, as opposed to the lift without heavy luggage? Rue this careless copywriter, leaving room for ambiguity, right? Actually, no, more rue me – wasting my time deriding this kind of thing. Tens of thousands of people see this every day and I very much doubt a single person has been confused by this sign.

The two reasons for being correct

I teach grammar knowing full well that useful rules exist in English, to make things clear. Rules that avoid confusion, and prevent wild misunderstandings. This can include the difference of a well-placed comma, a more correct adjective or an accurate use of tenses. All of these things can completely change the meaning of a sentence. This provides the first, most important reason, that it is good to be correct in your English: to make sure what you’re saying makes sense.

However, in a different context, all of these things can also be changed, or used inaccurately, and have no impact on anyone’s life anywhere. An idea is still communicated, a meaning is understood, and the only person that really notices it’s “wrong” is a referee of English rules. These circumstances draw up the second, far less noble reason, that it is good to be correct in your English: to use English correctly.

Don’t think of language as being based on rules

The problem with English is that our system of communication is based on patterns, not rules. Common usage of any grammatical structure, or any application of vocabulary, is a popular pattern that is popularly understood. The rules that exist are attempts to charter, and share, these patterns, but people talk the way they do because of the most universal understandings that arise from these patterns, not because they are trying to stick to rules.

The internet is rife with people complaining about other people’s poor use of English, and equally rife with people complaining about Grammar Nazis. And there are countless articles out there telling people when they’re doing something wrong. Some of those articles fit the first reason. A large number, however, scream bloody murder about the second reason. Particularly where vocabulary is concerned.

The correct meaning of a word, really, is how it’s commonly understood. Not what the history books describe as its origins. A nice example is “decimate”, a word that technically means to remove (or destroy) one in ten. Not to destroy everything. At least, that’s what it technically means to students of etymology, and that’s the meaning someone might tell you if they wanted to tell you you’re using the word wrong. To everyone else, it means to destroy totally. And if you’re trying to communicate with people, rather than accurately compile etymology bibles, you’d do well to tell someone who corrects such use that they’re not helping anyone.

Why get angry about accuracy?

My concern, as a professional, as a specialist, is when a message could be clearer. When a message could be more accurate. But realistically, it’s always important to ask if a change to the wording makes something clearer, or simply “more correct”? Does the fact that literally often gets used for emphasis and not literal comparison confuse anyone? Does having the option to carefully split infinitives make any sentence unclear? There are corrections worth fighting for, there are many that simply aren’t.

As writers, we know what could be. What problems could be caused, and what things should look like in a perfect world. We want things to stick to the rules, because we fear the rules changing, and the knowledge we’ve acquired becoming less useful.  But we should embrace the amorphous aspects of our language, not the dogma of those that try to record its rules. Imagine a doctor insisting that a list of symptoms will always ensure a specific, unquestionable diagnosis. If you don’t appreciate that rules can be broken, people can die.

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