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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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