Why good grammar matters

“Sticklers Unite!” is the rallying cry from Lynne Truss in her #1 New York Times bestseller for grammar nerds, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

I’m a stickler and proud of it. And not a closeted one, either. My profession—proofreader, editor and writer—is just a tiny giveaway, for a start. Then there’s my tendency to hover near the desks of report-writing colleagues, red pen twitching. And the way I wince when I pass a sign for “tomato’s”, “carrot’s”, “CD’s” or “video’s” – what Truss delightfully refers to as a “satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes.” (pg. 1, Eats, Shoots and Leaves)

I can spot an error a mile off. I swipe through the online papers in the morning, hissing increasingly infuriated objections: “No apostrophe! Comma splice! Singular possessive, for God’s sake! It’s your, not you’re! Who’s training the journalists in this country?”

My partner’s just as bad when he watches the rugby. “Offside. Knock on. No, NO NO NO! Jesus, Judas and Mary. Who’s selecting the All Blacks in this country?”

I suspect the majority of the nation would nod along with him and echo his every expletive. What do I get? Strange looks, eye rolls and exasperated sighs. I’m convinced that a number of my friends and acquaintances chat in low, concerned voices behind my back about my Grammar Nazi tendencies, and how it’s all just a bit OTT and unnecessary.

apostrophe

Look, they’ll say, as long as you’re understood, it doesn’t matter if you get the apostrophe in the wrong place, or write exclusively in sentence fragments. Who cares if you occasionally confuse “they’re” and “their”? What do you mean, it’s a dangling modifier? Are you some sort of freak?

Thank you for that comprehensive and vaguely patronising missive on the redundancy of my profession and the ultimate futility of my efforts to preserve and promote the proper use of our language, I’ll say.

Your welcome, they’ll say.

Here’s the sad reality: no-one seems to care about the steady decline in proper grammar and punctuation usage, except for us sticklers. As Truss points out:

Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we see dead punctuation. (pg. 3)

OK, I can be annoying. Not everyone wants to know that the restaurant you’re walking past shouldn’t have put their “Childrens menu” in the window without the apostrophe. It’s a very patient friend who doesn’t push you off the jetty when you point out, hopping and spitting, that “Ferry Terminal’s This Way” is an abomination.

In short, says Truss, “we are unattractive know-all obsessives who get things out of proportion and are in continual peril of being disowned by our exasperated families.” (pg. 5) She has a point.

(In my defence, she’s more annoying. Apparently she once stood outside a Leicester Square cinema indicating – with a cut-out apostrophe on a stick—how the title Two Weeks Notice might be easily grammatically corrected.)

I’ve recently finished writing and proofreading a website, and I’m sure the web designer with whom I was collaborating wants to kill me. In the final stages, I was sending her a good number of emails along the following lines: “Please remove full-stop from end of fifth photo caption”, and “Remove capital “C” from second word from right in third paragraph”, and “Remove comma from sixth sentence in the tenth paragraph and replace with semi-colon.” I can picture her now, clutching her hair and frothing at the mouth as the tenth email pointing out a misplaced apostrophe pings onto her screen (and into her nightmares.)

I can almost hear the infuriated scream all the way from her relatively nearby office: “It’s one apostrophe! IT DOESN’T MAAATTEEEERRRR!!!!”

But does it?

batman grammar slap

Of course it does, and Truss eloquently sums up why:

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. …Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. (pg. 20)

I’m a writer, and just as a carpenter or a painter needs his or her tools to be sharp and precise and well maintained, so I need my tools – words, and the symbols and rules holding them together – to be finely tuned and battle-ready.

I’m also a proofreader and editor. I chose that profession because I absolutely love it, and I’m rather good at it. My reputation is at stake every time I take on a project, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a little anal when it comes to getting things right.

Furthermore, I really do have my clients’ best interests at heart. Writing that is free from errors and compelling to read can make them money, attract more customers, earn them better grades, improve their chances of being published, and boost their professional reputation. Do they love a stickler? You betcha.

Need some help with your writing project? Need a stickler? Check me out at www.bellbirdwords.com. Drop me a line. And remember, I can work with you wherever you are in the world.

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