Is correctness correct? And does it matter?
Updated: Aug 12
One could argue all day about the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of language variations, whether or not there is a forever ‘correct’ form of a living language and, if so, when and where it ‘should’ be employed.
Perhaps what matters more, though, is how it all works in real life. Whether our use of language a) conveys precisely the message we wish it to, and b) projects the sort of image of ourselves that we would ideally like it to.
Where one-to-one conversations are concerned, pretty much anything goes. If we fail to put over the right message, the other person is free to ask for clarification of the ‘what-on-earth-are-you-on-about’ kind on the spot. Which covers a) above. And most of us are able to tailor our speech to our particular audience anyway, which looks after b) nicely too.
It all changes with written language, however. And here I include spoken language on radio and television, too, because in neither case is the person doing the writing/speaking there to be challenged over any imprecise, and therefore perhaps unclear, use of words.
As the blessed Lynne Truss shows by her title alone, the panda which ‘eats shoots and leaves’ is a very different animal to the one that ‘eats, shoots and leaves’. OK, perhaps those who claim that ‘it doesn’t really matter; you can usually get the general idea’ are often right. Perhaps you usually can. But what about the occasions when you can’t? When your boss or PA has left unclear written directions, or the instruction manual is a literal translation from Taiwanese? When the news presenter reads a comma which shouldn’t be there and thereby changes the sense? It happens, believe me. And who are you going to ask for clarification then?
Then we come to b) above – your image. Have you any idea what impression of you and/or your business a badly punctuated and semi-literate document can give?
I receive a regular email from a firm of print brokers. Beautifully designed and produced, it is full of interesting and useful information, complete with links to relevant websites. It is equally full of errors, typos and clumsy English. The last one features, for example, a piece taken from an article on the BBC News website. Copied, word for word, it nevertheless has none of the possessive apostrophes of the original – not even copied and pasted properly, then…
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I find it hard now to take these people wholly seriously. ‘They may seem to know what they’re doing’, whispers a voice in my head, ‘but how professional are they really? What about their attention to detail? It’s basic primary school stuff, after all, not rocket science. If they can’t be bothered to get that right, what are the chances for any work I give them?’
You may think no-one cares about the spelling, grammar and punctuation of your CV and covering letter, your website, or your newspaper advertisement. You may certainly believe that no-one cares about your Facebook status, tweets or LinkedIn pages. But if it’s plain to all that you don’t know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’; ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’; or ‘it’s and ‘its’, just what is it saying about you? Do you care? And more to the point, should you care?