On duty with the grammar police

Some people are so keen to correct others’ use of the English language that they often become known colloquially as the ‘grammar police’.

While I am not sure of the political correctness of such an epithet, it does seem to be a fairly popular way to describe anyone who has a tendency to correct the grammar and spelling that they see as an affront to our language.

It is an interesting issue for me to consider and write about as I find myself, figuratively speaking, sitting astride the fence. I sometimes agree with one side, sometimes the other.

Let me explain. Because of my training and years of experience as a journalist, I am not ashamed to say that pieces by me are written using what is known as journalese. Paragraphs are short, sentences are brief. They are designed to be easy to read and understand – unlike wordy scientific and similar technical papers.

Using journalese, I am not afraid to start sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘because’. While this is frowned upon as an example of bad grammar, journalists use it to keep sentences short and so make their writing easier to understand. It is used tor effect, for impact.

However, there are two ways of misusing the English language that I simply cannot bring myself to write. And these are the split infinitive and ending a sentence with a preposition, such as ‘of’, ‘with’, ‘from’ or ‘to’. I have seen at least one organisation’s style manual that says both of these are fine to use but, even though it is a matter of style rather than a grammar rule, I cannot do it.

It is relatively easy to avoid both if you want to do so. For example, if I had stopped the last sentence with the word ‘to’ as you probably would when speaking, it would have ended in a preposition. I chose to avoid it by writing two extra words.

An infinitive is easy to split. The most famous example is most probably heard at the beginning of every episode of Star Trek when the soundtrack says ‘to boldly go’. That one would be easy to avoid, just saying ‘to go boldly’ would be correct and lose none of its impact.

Some people genuinely do not know what an infinitive is, some do not want to know while others do not care. Fair enough, I suppose, but it is really easy to understand. All verbs have an infinitive: to be, to have, to go, to do, to write, to watch – and so on.

One of my pet hates, and this really gets to me, is the way that lazy speaking has crept into lazy writing. Or, maybe, it is not laziness, maybe some people believe they are writing correctly when they use the contracted or shortened form of ‘would have’, ‘could have’ and ‘should have’.

The shortened form of ‘would have’, for example, is ‘would’ve’ but I have seen it written as ‘would of’ and, worse still, ‘wood of’. Aaaaagh! That is terrible and, if they really do not know any better, it does not speak well of the quality of education that pupils have been given in school.

Am I a member of the grammar police? Sometimes.