June 11th, 2013 .

When is Bad Good?

Pat Morden

Recently I was in a meeting to discuss a brochure that I had drafted. At one point my client said, with ill-concealed glee, “Oh by the way, I’ve made a change since you last saw the copy – I found a grammatical error.”

There was a time when that would have sent me into a tailspin. Me, a communications consultant, making a grammatical error? How appalling. With images of my reputation swirling down the toilet bowl, I would find myself asking about the so-called error and maybe even arguing the point.

No more. In fact, my occasional outrage about common grammatical errors in this spot has always concealed some uncertainty.

In my philosophical moments I wonder, what is good grammar and why does it matter? Is it just a question of being correct when others are WRONG? Or does grammar actually enable us to communicate clearly?

It’s a question that has bedevilled language freaks for decades, maybe centuries. In a December 2012 article in the New Statesman, columnist Martha Gill wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with trying to be clear, but what’s annoying about people advertising their hatred of small grammatical errors is that it’s fairly transparently a status thing. “ (Obviously she too has had her mistakes pointed out to her.)

She goes on to argue that grammar, like DNA, evolves, and in the process new languages emerge. She ends by soothing the concerns of those who claim that English is going to hell in a handcart. “Language is fine – it’s thriving. It’s fairly hardy. Comedians and writers should just cross it off their list of worries and stop banging on about it.”

An article in Forbes in June of last year tackles the same question, quoting linguistics professor Alice Harris. “All languages change all the time – it’s not just English – and people have been complaining about changes in languages for as long as they’ve been changing, which is forever.”

Yet the writer goes on to argue that the evolution of language can’t be used as an excuse for bad grammar, which she says, “reflects badly on employees at all levels.”

Especially communications consultants, I guess.

The tough thing is to decide when an error slips into common usage. I would argue that using lay instead of lie is at or past the tipping point. So is fulsome to mean complete or rigorous. But I’m sure that if I tried to get away with either of them, a client would take great pleasure in pointing out my mistake.

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