Apostrophe Now: Bad Grammar and the People Who Hate It

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Children are again to be subject to a rigorous examination in grammar. But why does it make adults so cross when other adults break the rules?

A new grammar and spelling test arrives in primary schools in England this week. It is the first time in a while that such emphasis has been put on grammar.

Some of the questions will seem straightforward for many adults, such as where to place a comma or a colon in a sentence. But other aspects – identifying different types of adverbs or distinguishing between subordinating and co-ordinating connectives – might raise eyebrows.

Grammar is not just an educational issue. For some adults, it can sabotage friendships and even romantic relationships.

The research arm of dating site OKCupid looked at 500,000 first contactsand concluded that “netspeak, bad grammar and bad spelling are huge turn-offs”. The biggest passion killers were “ur”, “r”, “u”, “ya” and “cant”. Also damaging to online suitors were “luv” and “wat”.

On the other hand, correct use of apostrophes was appealing. Using “don’t” and “won’t” caused better than average response rates – 36% and 37% respectively, according to the research.

Twist Phelan, an American writer who went on 100 online dates in 100 days and later married someone she met online, says grammar is a vital “filter system”. It shows care has been taken when sentences are grammatically correct. “If you’re trying to date a woman, I don’t expect flowery Jane Austen prose. But aren’t you trying to put your best foot forward?”

It also satisfies the intellectual snob within us. Phelan wanted to find someone at ease with language.

But grammar can be a linguistic minefield.

Grammarians argue it ensures clarity and elegance. For others, it is a series of archaic rules beloved of pedants, bearing little relation to how people really communicate.

The Idler magazine’s Bad Grammar Awards recently named and shamed a letter by academics for saying that the national curriculum demanded “too much, too young” – thus confusing an adjective and an adverb. Another transgressor was Transport for London for its sign “It is safer to stay on the train than attempting to get off” – mixing up gerund and infinitive.

But the Times hit back in a leader attacking “grammar scolds” who worry more about rules than clear, idiomatic English.

It isn’t always obvious what constitutes good and bad grammar.

The 17th Century poet John Dryden is said to have invented the notion that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, which has led to heated debate ever since. And what about starting a sentence with “and”?

The ever-encroaching use of “like” instead of “as if” can offend traditionalists, such as in the sentence: “I feel like I’m going to be sick.”

Mixing up your modals – “might” and “may” – is another bugbear. As is the grocer’s apostrophe, so-called for its frequent appearance in fruit and veg shops advertising apple’s, pear’s and sundry other green’s. “Can I get…?” is for some an offence that should lead shopkeepers to frogmarch the culprit off the premises.

Some supermarkets, having been condemned for signage reading “10 items or less”, now use “fewer” instead.

Semi-colons can provoke strong reactions; the novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr advised people to avoid them altogether. “All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

And sentences without a verb?

Some grammar defenders can be “extremely prissy”, admits Harry Mount, author of How England Made the English. But good grammar matters and the new test is to be welcomed, he argues.

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