Grammar: the difference between knowing your sh*t and knowing you’re sh*t
No matter how good our writing skills, we’re all going to make errors from time to time, so it’s with due humility that I offer up the following examples … in the early years of high school I entertained the teaching staff with accounts of “carnivorous trees” [coniferous] and “desecrated coconut” [desiccated]. A deep part of my brain still glows with embarrassment!
I love to read punctuation and grammar errors that twist the meaning to comic proportions and they really do highlight the importance of proofreading any text.
In this sign “When hunting” is superfluous (what else would a hunter do?) The signwriter should either delete these words or insert a comma after “hunting”.
A safari park warning sign requests “Elephants Please Stay In Your Car”
Common road signs advise “Slow Children Crossing” and “Police Slow”
A sign in a launderette “Automatic washing machines. Please remove all your clothes when the light goes out”
The label on a stick deodorant advises the user to “Take off the lid and push up bottom”
One of my personal favourites for ambiguity, seen throughout Britain’s motorway system, “Picking up your litter risks roadworkers lives”. Yes, we know what they intended to say, but they didn’t say it clearly.
You should never leave your reader in the position either of laughing at you or trying to work out what you meant. It’s true that you can’t proofread your own writing and that’s because you see what you meant not necessarily what is on the page. Although it’s hard to see how signs and literature in public can pass through umpteen hands and the errors not be picked up.
In the 2018 local elections a Conservative party leaflet was delivered to households with only holding text in place.
Red faces all round and an amusing story for their political rivals and the press but how on earth does it happen?
Does good grammar matter in the twenty-first century? Language changes all the time and we don’t stick to the grammatical rules of even 50 years ago. However, what’s changed is that we’ve ditched the pedantic rules that were there just for the sake of having a rule; grammar remains important for clear communication.
Your CV might just land in the bin, no matter how brilliant you are in other respects, if the prospective employer is put off by your grammatical errors; a company might lose business as clients and customers lose confidence in the professionalism of a company that doesn’t pay attention to detail.
The legal world is particularly prone to unfortunate punctuation with potentially costly outcomes. Here are a few examples:
The $2m comma
A Canadian telecoms company lost $2m due to the placement of a comma. The paragraph in the contract read,
“Subject to the termination provisions of [the Agreement], [the Agreement] shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
The dispute centred around the date the contract could be terminated. Does “unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party” apply to the entire contracted period or just the successive 5 year terms?
The 2nd comma turns “and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms” into a sub-clause so the “unless and until” was deemed to apply to the whole sentence.
Another tricky legal area is the drawing up of wills. In 1966 in Ohio just one semi-colon posed a problem in the following clause:
“All of the residue and remainder of my property I give and devise in equal shares to Albert Wilson of Toronto, Canada, son of my late husband’s niece Jean Wilson; The Little Sisters of the Poor of Cleveland, Ohio and Our Lady of Peace Church of Cleveland, Ohio.”
The dispute centred on what proportion the split was meant to be; Albert Wilson: 1/3, The Little Sisters of the Poor: 1/3, Our Lady of Peace Church: 1/3
Albert Wilson: 1/2, The Little Sisters of the Poor: 1/4, Our Lady of Peace Church: 1/4
The clause would have been clearer if the deceased had put a semi-colon between The Little Sisters of the Poor and Our Lady of Peace Church so that it would read:
“All of the residue and remainder of my property I give and devise in equal shares to Albert Wilson of Toronto, Canada, son of my late husband’s niece Jean Wilson; The Little Sisters of the Poor of Cleveland, Ohio; and Our Lady of Peace Church of Cleveland, Ohio.”
The judge decided to ignore the missing semi-colon saying that the estate should be divided into three equally.
So whilst we embrace changes to language, we should agree that clarity and meaning are paramount and there will always be a place for grammatical rules that support clear communication.
Take the time to read over your writing carefully, preferably persuade a friend or colleague to check it – or employ a professional proofreader. Please remember that the spellchecker is not necessarily your friend!