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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder