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The Queen’s English

Good news for those obsessed by misplaced apostrophes: you are not alone.

BBC Breakfast was inundated by emails after they posed the question, ‘Does grammar matter?’ and the answer was a resounding, ‘Yes!’ The debate was reignited after the announcement that a major Building Society has hired an A Level English teacher to provide grammar lessons to their staff, whose correspondence was not serving as an advertisement for the company.

Leading the debate for the need for improved standards was a representative from the Queen’s English Society, who put pay to the argument that technology is to blame. The society was founded in 1972 when it was already recognised that the teaching of grammar was in decline. Expressing the views of those who commissioned reports from the society (those who wished to employ graduates, but were unable to find CVs of a satisfactory standard),  he said that bad grammar indicates carelessness, ignorance and bad attitude.

Faced with ample evidence in the form of letters received from a number of sources, there was no arguement against the need for improved written English. However, there was the arguement that a poor grasp of grammar should not be seen as measure of intelligence: children are simply not aware of its importance because they are not taught about it. I apologise for the italics but, in this case, they are there to indicate my physical reaction: is this really something that needs to be taught in a classroom?

I was never in under any illusion about the importance of speaking correctly because correct pronunciation was drummed into me by my parents from the word, ‘go’. And although, at the time, I hated the never-ending stream of corrections, I have no doubt that it was one of the things that enabled me to make the leap from sixteen-year-old school-leaver to the boardroom. If you could communicate effectively, you were taken seriously – regardless of age or qualifications. It was as simple as that.    

Interviewed by the Radio Times, actress Emma Thompson is someone who  agrees. “I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing their ‘likes’ and ‘innits?’ and ‘ain’ts’, which drives me insane. I told them, ‘Just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid.’   She went on to argue that there is a necessity to have two languages – one that you use with your mates and the other than you need in any official capacity. And she concluded in only the way that Emma Thompson can: ‘Or you’re going to sound like a knob.’ Having recently started an MA at Kingston University, I can report that the ‘likes’ and ‘innits?’ and ‘ain’ts’ are creeping out of classrooms and making their way into lecture rooms. And, yes, (Thank you, Emma.  I can now say this without fear of sounding snobbish) it does make the speaker sound stupid.

Having two different forms of spoken language was a survival technique for any girl from Merton Park who wanted to survive middle school. Perhaps the difference was that I knew when to switch, and the switch took place automatically. It is this ability – or willingness – to adapt to environment that seems to have been lost. We speak and and expect to be accepted on our own terms. If the listener cannot translate, that is seen as their problem.      

Those of us who have been in business longer than we care to remember will recall the Plain English Campaign, a worthy attempt to rid contracts and correspondence of the hereto-fores and notwithstandings that created barriers to meaning. Language was pared back, not just for the benefit of the reader, but to make it easier for the writer. Sadly, the hint was not taken. Instead of seeing the beauty of simple written English, it was again seen as permission for falling standards.       

At the same time there has to be a recognition that when typing your own work mistakes are inevitable. Up until five years ago, I dictated written correspondence into a marvellous little device called a Dictaphone and it was delivered back to me, paper-clipped neatly to an envelope, for proof-reading. It is almost impossible to proofread your own typing because the brain is such a clever tool that it has an inbuilt auto-correct function. We have all read the paragraphs where the first and last letter of every word is correct and what comes in between a jumbled mess, and made perfect sense of it. To me, being short of time does not excuse poor grammar, but neither does a typo equate to poor grammar. The difficulty is, can the reader tell the difference?

It is reassuring that even the professionals are not immune. The cover of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a guide to use of punctuation, breaks its own rules. Its tagline proclaims it ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.’ Elsewhere, it is the ‘zero-tolerance approach’.

In the same way, I am absolutely sure that this entry will be jinxed and I will lay blame fairly and squarely at the feet of the  technology Gremlins.