Tag Archives: grammar

WHEN TYPOS REALLY ARE CRIMINAL

Chirpy FT regular Lucy Kellaway is always good value, and her article on BBC Online this week, about the relative unimportance of spelling mistakes and typos, was guaranteed to get a vociferous response from grammar zealots. I’ve some sympathy for her position, having already staked out my red lines around typographical fastidiousness, but the truth is that this lady has gone too far.

I, like Lucy, have made a great many howlers in my time. Indeed, “I, like Lucy,” may even be one of them. The reason these made it in front of my clients (and on at least one occasion, in print) was because I didn’t try hard enough to identify the faults and correct them. Like making sure there’s no hair in the sandwiches I make my kids every morning, it DOES matter. It matters because the act of writing is an intimate communication process between a writer and a reader. Failing to apply the highest possible care in delivering that content fundamentally disrespects the reader, and if you disrespect the reader then what was the point in sitting down to write your ditty in the first place?

I get a pile of spam email every day, most of which is funnelled into a spam folder that I rarely open. Spam is often the delivery mechanism for extremely damaging bugs and viruses, or the opening gambit for a ‘phishing scam’ where the email appears to be from your bank or business supplier but is in fact from a rather nasty character in Belarus called Vlad. Clicking on a link or opening an attachment could be a disaster. The information security industry makes billions of pounds a year developing technology to identify and stop the bad stuff reaching you; letting the good stuff pass through unfettered.

Telling the difference between a cybercriminal attack and a legitimate email is very simple, if you take the time to read for spelling, grammar, syntax, formatting and so on.

I’ve written about information security for over 10 years and seen a great many malicious email threats. Cybercriminals are doing astonishingly clever things with code that run rings around national intelligence agencies and anti-virus scientists. But never, in all that time, have I read a cybercriminal email that was sophisticated enough in its use of English to look as though it was written by the marketing/comms department of – say – a UK high street bank.

That’s a blatant crime if ever you saw one.

NEVER ABUSE THE ENGLISH B*STARD

I’ve ghost-written for countless business leaders and other influential people, and I’ve trained a lot of young writers and communications professionals.  One thing I’ve learnt is that you can always be a better writer.  That’s especially achievable because the English language is such a contradictory, rule-breaking mongrel of uncertain parentage, that you can paint on its canvas in a lot of different ways.

Now when it comes to some of the essential elements of English grammar, it pays to be a pedant.  Personally, spelling errors and botched apostrophe’s (see what I did there?) would be punishable by death if I ruled the world etc. etc.  For a business (and by extension a professional person) to present themselves without regard to these essential conventions frankly makes them look stupid.

But whether you’re carefree about your commas, or pernickety about your parentheses, the people who I’ve got no time for whatsoever are the ultra-orthodox nut cases who wet their pants at the sight of a split-infinitive.

And misplaced modifiers?  Don’t talk to me about misplaced buggering modifiers…  OK, OK, so I accept that the syntax of a sentence could be more gracefully expressed in many of the instances where modifiers are misplaced, but come on… really?  The only two clients that ever presented this objection to my work were basically missing the point about what the article/press release/opinion piece was trying to achieve: COMMUNICATION.  Technically, they were right, but what the hell is that supposed to count for?

(Incidentally, if you want to know what a misplaced modifier is then feel free to Google it.  That’ll be 20 seconds of your life you’re never getting back, by the way…)

There is a wonderful line by Lynne Truss in her book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.  Following a brief analysis of appropriate  scenarios for employing the comma, she offers her own rule to beat them all: “Don’t use commas like a stupid person.”  I regard that as seriously good advice.

Content creators are not the Waffen-SS of the English language.  Just remember what the content is for, and who it’s for.