Words to the wise: ‘Accuse me of anything, but do not attack my grammar’
Celebrities Taylor Swift and Kelsey Grammer have become champions of good English. But even being a ‘cool grammarian’ has its rulebook
Terse: Taylor Swift criticised the Princeton Review, a firm that helps US students prepare for exams, for misquoting one of her lyrics in a test paper. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage/Getty
A man walks into a bar and orders two cappuccini. The barman stares blankly at him. Someone who is already in the bar (that would be me) feels bound to inform Cappuccini Man, who is Irish, that nouns of foreign origin tend to lose their foreign plural endings in English, getting by just fine with a final S. Then it’s Cappuccini Man’s turn to stare blankly. So I explain: “In Italy you would say ‘due cappuccini’. In Dublin we say ‘two cappuccinos’.”
Being a grammar pedant requires fine judgment, and it’s easy to overstep the mark. This week the pop star Taylor Swift criticised the Princeton Review, a firm that helps US students prepare for exams, for misquoting one of her lyrics in a test paper. The company intended to quote it as an example of bad grammar but made an error in its reproduction of the lyric.
Swift sent it the correct line with a terse message: “Accuse me of anything but do not attack my grammar.”
Also this week we read about a “vigilante gang” in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. When night falls, wearing ski masks and armed only with spray cans, they trawl the streets of the capital, looking for grammatical errors on graffiti-strewn buildings, which they then correct.
“Grammatical errors cause stress,” the anonymous members of the self-styled “Quito Orthographic Action” group told the Washington Post. “This is a moral obligation. Punctuation matters, commas matter, accents matter. This is . . . not about, ‘Oh everyone has their own truths and nobody is the owner of the truth and we have to be tolerant.’ Sometimes people are just wrong.”
You wouldn’t want to run into those guys on a dimly lit street late at night without knowing how to use the Oxford comma.
On Twitter the actor Kelsey Grammer, aka Frasier, soothes the souls of tens of thousands by regularly correcting grammatically incorrect tweets. He set up his account last year – using the hashtag #KelseyGrammerGrammar – because “It has come to my attention that the fine people of @Twitter have an egregious grammar problem. I’m here to help.”
First he went after the low-hanging fruit: pop stars. When Katy Perry tweeted, “Ready for Wot Wez Been Grillin?!” Grammer tweeted back in exasperation, “Where do I begin . . . ?”
After the rapper Pitbull tweeted, “thanks to radio stations across the globe for the early support on Fireball its appreciated and you know who you are”, Grammer tweeted back, “(that should be) it’s appreciated”.
@KelseyGrammer now hovers over Twitter, dispensing advice, highlighting horrendous grammatical errors with photographic evidence (many of which seem to come from Northern Ireland, for some reason) and swooping in for a kill when a celebrity confuses affect with effect or (shudder) fails to respect the apostrophe.
Grammer leavens his work with humour – which is crucial. The only thing worse than the use of teeth-clenchingly bad grammar is the joyless, pedantic killjoy who frets about split infinitives and dangling participles and about whether “I am good”, as the answer to the question “How are you?”, warrants a custodial sentence.
As the grammar expert Pat O’Connor, of the excellent grammarphobia blog, remarks, “Just be clear in what you say or mean – and if it’s not really important, let it go. Be kind to one another because language is not for keeping us apart.”
But more and more employers are concerned that younger job applicants routinely misuse too and to, it’s and its, and so on. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, one chief executive, Kyle Wiens, opened his call to arms for higher standards with the line, “I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why . . .” He added, “I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing.”
A study of LinkedIn profiles a couple of years ago found that workers who were promoted between six and nine times in 10 years made almost a third fewer grammatical errors than those who were promoted four or fewer times.
But if good grammar is to become sexy it needs to be less prescriptive and more descriptive. “Drive Slow” or “Drive Slowly”: it really doesn’t matter. No one likes a grammar bore. Languages adapt naturally. If it’s easier to type C U 2Moro in a text message, please do so.
Their, they’re, there Grammar schooling
1 Grammar is easy: Your/you’re, there/their and onwards to who/whom. And what the word “literally” literally means. It’s all stupidly easy and takes only minutes to learn.
2 Bad grammar hurts your credibility: Whether you’re a politician or a social-media user, make any basic grammar mistakes and it will call into question the veracity of information you provide.
3 People with good grammar go further in their careers: from the initial CV to presentations to promotion-begging letters, grammar is your workplace ally.
4 We’re texting, tweeting, posting and commenting more than ever: If you’re going to bring something to the party, make sure it’s wrapped up well with good grammar. First utterances are as important as first appearances.
5 If your grammar is bad, no one will love you: A study by Kibin, a proofreading and editing site, found that of 1,700 online daters asked about the importance of good grammar in dating profiles, 43 per said poor grammar was “a major turn-off”.