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?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.