We are, it seems, a nation of pedants. Pedantry – or to give it its proper name, pedantitude – can be a force for good. An apostrophe here or a comma, there, can sometimes make a massive difference to an otherwise good sentence, rendering it incomprehensible and impossible to understand. (Well, without re-reading, working out what’s going on, saying “Oh, right” to yourself and moving on. But who wants to do that? We’re busy people nowadays. We need to be spoonfed our information and for it to be perfect the moment it arrives in front of us, in the form of words.)
People got upset, didn’t they, about the apostrophes disappearing from the Waterstones (or should that be Waterstone’s?) shops. I don’t worry so much, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I should declare an interest, in that the high street booksellers were the first company to give me a job when I was unemployed, and so are therefore clearly the best company in the world ever (and do check out their staff recommendations, as they’re really very good).
But secondly, this is, for better or worse, the way things are going: if you put an apostrophe in a hashtag, for example, it doesn’t work. People are browsing the web looking for stuff, and don’t always get their punctuation perfectly precise; companies need to be as accessible as possible, without alienating customers who may (or might) not be as capable as those of us who went to good schools at getting things right. Our language, which has changed a lot down the centuries, is changing even now, and it’s something to celebrate, rather than worry about.
Besides, I think there’s a stench of snobbery about pedantry sometimes. People call misplaced apostrophes “greengrocer’s apostrophe’s”, sneering at people who’ve got up at four in the morning and lugged around giant crates of fresh fruit and then, for some reason, haven’t had the decency to get their punctuation right as well, like that’s the most important thing of all. “Oh I’m sorry,” says the greengrocer, back from Covent Garden in the freezing December morning air, “I really ought to pay more attention to where I’m putting my commas and that. Thank you very much, Mr Booksmart, for looking down on me! Now bugger off out of my shop, you don’t have a job and can’t afford my canteloupes.” Look, we’ve all done it. We’ve all tutted at signs, and the Facebook updates of people we used to know who turned out to be quite thick. We’ve all been there, and it’s a cheap laugh, but, I don’t know who ends up looking like the bigger idiot.
All writer’s, me included, like to be corrected when they get something hideously and awfully wrong. (We might cry and stamp our feet at the time, but we appreciate it really.) Or even slightly wrong. We don’t like getting things wrong at all. We try our best, god love us, but we’re not necessarily people with perfect grammar and English or who can spend five minutes looking up facts on Google to make sure they’re completely accurate; writing is sometimes (or perhaps often) more about having ideas in the first place rather than having the exact right correct perfect words to make them into the best sentences.
If you can have both skills, well, then the world is yours for the taking of course, but I leave that kind of writing class to your AA Gills, your Johnny Clarksons, your whatshisface, you know, the one who writes about what he had for dinner, who’s got a sister who plays chess or snap or Yahtzee or something, yes him.
Most decent publications have subeditors, dusty old pedants who act as a kind of vital safety net to save writers from themselves. It’s a job I used to do – yes, I was that corduroy-clad soldier. But as they dwindle in number and gradually go to that great unhyphenated adjectival in the sky, more and more copy ends up appearing in its raw, unedited, ragged state.
It’s a shame, but again, that’s the way these things are going.
All that said, I think there’s a level of pedantitudinousness that extends way beyond the kind of helpful corrections that all author’s appreciate, that becomes a kind of snippy one-upmanship. “Oh, you’ve used the word ‘may’ when you should have used ‘might’,” say people, quickly, on Twitter, making fun of someone’s usage of the English language, as if it may (or should that be might?) make a difference to the meaning of what you’ve said. Yes yes yes, you wont to say, all right, I get you’re point, but look – the thing is the thing, isn’t it?
Look at what it’s actually trying to say, rather than lobbing rotten fruit at the greengrocers’ apostrophes. Sometimes the message is much more important than the word’s.