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?

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses