Grammar to Fall


"Sorry, I'm a bit of a grammar Nazi." Never ever say this sentence. Why? Because "grammar Nazi" is a glib, facetious reference to the horrors of the Third Reich? No. It's because you're a member of a dwindling band of people who still care about language and how to use it properly. You're right and you should be proud about it - two important points of difference with the Nazis.

So why have these two words been concatenated into a derogatory, often self-deprecating phrase? We don't go round calling doctors "health Fascists" or firefighters "heat bastards". (This is clearly a fair comparison). What's wrong with wanting to make things better? It suggests a prevailing mood amongst us all that accurate English isn't all that important, that it doesn't really matter: there are bigger things to worry about. That's true of course. I don't think anyone believes a misused apostrophe is vying with ISIS blowing up ancient cities at the top of the cultural vandalism charts. Neither is poor language an especially new phenomenon: Shakespeare famously couldn't even decide how to write his own name, using six different spellings in the four extant documents which contain his signature. So either consistency didn't matter in the late 16th century, or the world's greatest ever playwright was also an extremely amateur fraudster. I know that the debate over what constitutes good English is a very old chestnut, lining the pockets of Lynne Truss and often popping up as the "light-hearted" item on the Today programme. One person will argue for accuracy, another will say that language is constantly evolving and we should just get over it. Maybe so, but even taking all that into account, if you're like me, occasionally you'll come across something so completely rubbish that it makes you want to get hold of the writer and strangle them with their own colon. Something like this:

Led. Led. It's bloody "led"! Is it just me or is this mistake cropping up increasingly frequently? There are countless examples: "loose" instead of "lose"; "breath" when it should be "breathe". You may well have your own pet hate. All of these are small beer, though, compared to what confronted me at Wood Green station on the way to work this week:

tube grammar.jpg

Frankly it's a wonder that anybody who can make this mistake has managed to master the Roman alphabet, although forensic examination of the crucial "S" reveals that there was definitely a struggle. The error here is so bad that I've come up with a conspiracy theory to explain it, namely that I was so utterly shocked by spotting this elementary cock-up it completely distracted me from the more material problem that the Piccadilly Line was broken. So here's the question: is the blunder so flagrant it must have been deliberate? Are people cunningly employing inaccurate language all over the place in order to divert our attention from what else is going on? Is this all an evil Orwellian ruse dreamed up by advertising executives and brand experts? After all, the true art of magic is misdirection, and not for the first time I was completely sucked in.

The short answer is... no. But it's got you wondering, hasn't it? So the next time you see a misplace'd apo'strophe or any other appalling grammar, don't just be angry. Ask yourself "Why?" Which is coincidentally the same advice I would have given the Nazis.


Jon HarveyComment