Why we should be a little less pedantic

Sometimes the message is much more important than the words.

We are, it seems, a nation of pedants. Pedantry - or to give it its proper name, pedantitude - can be a force for good. An apostrophe here or a comma, there, can sometimes make a massive difference to an otherwise good sentence, rendering it incomprehensible and impossible to understand. (Well, without re-reading, working out what's going on, saying "Oh, right" to yourself and moving on. But who wants to do that? We're busy people nowadays. We need to be spoonfed our information and for it to be perfect the moment it arrives in front of us, in the form of words.)
People got upset, didn't they, about the apostrophes disappearing from the Waterstones (or should that be Waterstone's?) shops. I don't worry so much, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I should declare an interest, in that the high street booksellers were the first company to give me a job when I was unemployed, and so are therefore clearly the best company in the world ever (and do check out their staff recommendations, as they're really very good).

But secondly, this is, for better or worse, the way things are going: if you put an apostrophe in a hashtag, for example, it doesn't work. People are browsing the web looking for stuff, and don't always get their punctuation perfectly precise; companies need to be as accessible as possible, without alienating customers who may (or might) not be as capable as those of us who went to good schools at getting things right. Our language, which has changed a lot down the centuries, is changing even now, and it's something to celebrate, rather than worry about.

Besides, I think there's a stench of snobbery about pedantry sometimes. People call misplaced apostrophes "greengrocer's apostrophe's", sneering at people who've got up at four in the morning and lugged around giant crates of fresh fruit and then, for some reason, haven't had the decency to get their punctuation right as well, like that's the most important thing of all. "Oh I'm sorry," says the greengrocer, back from Covent Garden in the freezing December morning air, "I really ought to pay more attention to where I'm putting my commas and that. Thank you very much, Mr Booksmart, for looking down on me! Now bugger off out of my shop, you don't have a job and can't afford my canteloupes." Look, we've all done it. We've all tutted at signs, and the Facebook updates of people we used to know who turned out to be quite thick. We've all been there, and it's a cheap laugh, but, I don't know who ends up looking like the bigger idiot.

All writer's, me included, like to be corrected when they get something hideously and awfully wrong. (We might cry and stamp our feet at the time, but we appreciate it really.) Or even slightly wrong. We don't like getting things wrong at all. We try our best, god love us, but we're not necessarily people with perfect grammar and English or who can spend five minutes looking up facts on Google to make sure they're completely accurate; writing is sometimes (or perhaps often) more about having ideas in the first place rather than having the exact right correct perfect words to make them into the best sentences.

If you can have both skills, well, then the world is yours for the taking of course, but I leave that kind of writing class to your AA Gills, your Johnny Clarksons, your whatshisface, you know, the one who writes about what he had for dinner, who's got a sister who plays chess or snap or Yahtzee or something, yes him.

Most decent publications have subeditors, dusty old pedants who act as a kind of vital safety net to save writers from themselves. It's a job I used to do - yes, I was that corduroy-clad soldier. But as they dwindle in number and gradually go to that great unhyphenated adjectival in the sky, more and more copy ends up appearing in its raw, unedited, ragged state.

It's a shame, but again, that's the way these things are going.

All that said, I think there's a level of pedantitudinousness that extends way beyond the kind of helpful corrections that all author's appreciate, that becomes a kind of snippy one-upmanship. "Oh, you've used the word 'may' when you should have used 'might'," say people, quickly, on Twitter, making fun of someone's usage of the English language, as if it may (or should that be might?) make a difference to the meaning of what you've said. Yes yes yes, you wont to say, all right, I get you're point, but look - the thing is the thing, isn't it?

Look at what it's actually trying to say, rather than lobbing rotten fruit at the greengrocers' apostrophes. Sometimes the message is much more important than the word's.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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