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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear