Grammar and spelling pedants: this is why you're wrong

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

I don’t mind other people’s bad grammar. I don’t care when people get “less” and “fewer” the wrong way round or say “James and myself” instead of “James and I”. I don't mind when people use “it’s” instead of “its” or use phrases such as “going forward” and “let’s action that” and “innit, though”. In fact I find it quite comforting. It feels like job security.

But I appear to be pretty much alone. Other people’s bad grammar, coupled with their “sloppy language” and “management speak”, might be the most common pet hate in the world. Emma Thompson is driven “insane” by bad grammar, David Mitchell hates it when companies say they have a "passion" for their products or services, when in their heart of hearts they probably don’t (at least, not a passion), and Stephen Fry once publicly ridiculed the acronym “CCTV” for being “a bland, clumsy, rhythmically null and phonically forgettable word, if you can call it a word”. (A bit unfair, Stephen – just listen to the words you use, such as “null”. That also sounds quite null.)

It's comedians, you see, who have the biggest problem with grammar and bad phrasing. It’s just such an easy source of material. Pick a common but counter-logical phrase, slowly repeat it several times, getting increasingly confused, then appeal to the audience: “What does that actually mean? What does that literally mean? I literally have no idea what that means.” Oh, come on, just put the phrase in context and have a bit of a think. You can probably work out what it means.

Now there’s nothing wrong with trying to be clear, but what's annoying about people advertising their hatred of small grammatical errors is that it’s fairly transparently a status thing. Where once the aristocracy used to make a point of getting twitchy when others poured the milk in before the tea or had supper at 6 rather than 8, the intelligentsia now mark themselves out by being, by nature, “unable to stand” certain phrases. Why? Well, they are simply anxious, they go on to explain, that language be preserved. Grammar in particular needs to be protected rigorously. Without patrolling, it could slip into disuse - and how would we understand each other without it?

But grammar is as naturally robust as DNA and it's actually the kids who are preserving it. The obvious example to reach for here is the development of Creole languages. People flung together with no shared language, such as groups of slaves from different places, develop what are known as pidgin languages to communicate with each other. These are not languages in the true sense – just a chaotic collection of words, often used inconsistently, with very little grammar. However, children born into these communities are not content merely to imitate the adults. Instead, they spontaneously impose a grammatical structure on to the words they’ve learned, creating a new language, a Creole, in one generation.

Language is fine – it’s thriving. It’s fairly hardy. Comedians and writers should just cross it off their list of worries and stop banging on about it. It’s one of my biggest pet hates.

B is for bad grammar. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.