Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spell-check and Grammar Night Classes anyone?

This sign was posted to a pole on the road to work for a week or so last autumn, near Dungarvan in Co. Waterford. I nearly crashed the car when I drove past it the first time and thinking I had been seeing things, I looked out for it later in the day when passing the same spot. This time it was on the way back into town, on the other side of the road. No chance of anyone missing it!

I thought of this when I read Kristin's post on Student Howlers, and on commenting on it realised we are both what could be kindly termed Grammar and Punctuation "Anoraks" - my kids and hubby call me pedantic and they are probably right, but I defend my right to be boringly pedantic in the interest of good English!

One of the funniest books I read in the past decade has to be Lynn Truss's "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" which is all about the mangling of the English Language by poor punctuation and grammar. The title comes from the following joke.

A panda walks into a café, sits down and orders a sandwich. After he finishes eating the sandwich, the panda pulls out a gun and fires some shots in the air, and then stands up to go. "Hey!" shouts the manager. "Where are you going? You just shot at my waiter and you didn't pay for your sandwich!" The panda says to the manager "I'm a PANDA! Look it up!" and he throws him a badly-punctuated wildlife manual. The manager opens his dictionary and sees the following definition: PANDA: large black and white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

The bugbear for all members of the Punctuation Police has to be the so-called "Greengrocer's Apostrophe" which renders every plural noun a possessive. "Apple's - 6for €1" is a good bargain but gets me off on a rant every time I see it.

The wonderfully curmudgeonly John Humphrys of BBC 4 "Today" fame has written another hilarious book on the same language assassination, called "Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulation of the English Language" . Both these books are just the tip of the iceberg of a whole genre of books that lament the sloppiness and lazyness that has resulted in kids being taught English by teachers who never learnt the basic rules of good grammar. Children who don't know how to "speak proper" are writing essays in txtspk ( has been done, in the UK an exam essay was submitted that had been written in the text shorthand that is the first language of all digit-happy children from their pre-teens).

So I was gobsmacked with the poster for the night classes, and wondered how long it would be before someone realised the bloomer. That would be about a week! The school is a very reputable secondary and post-leaving certificate college that runs excellent Fetac courses. I mentioned it to a colleague who had also noticed it. He said the principal had become aware of it, and was probably highly embarrassed that it had been printed and posted without proofing. It makes you wonder about the printers that didn't notice alarm bells ringing. I guess they didn't hear them, as I read an article this week about the havoc wreaked by homonyms (words sounding similar with different meanings: e.g. threw - through; phase - faze) that slip under the radar of the spell-checker. Proof-readers have a whole new challenge now to catch the culprits before they hit the printers.
I hope I am not being holier-than-thou in all this - it is just something that bugs me, and I am not a grammar whiz by a long shot. I was appalling in school in formal grammar; parsing and analysing sentences passed me by without as much as a glance, and I am totally at odds with the rules of adjectives and pronouns and verbs. One thing I did learn in school and at home was to spell correctly and use "proper" grammar almost intuitively - from a lot of rote-learning and by reading widely. My mother was very intolerant of lazy speech and I would never get away with quaint colloquialisms like "I done that" so I guess a lot of it is pretty ingrained.

Thanks to Kristin for inspiring this post, and apologies if I've annoyed some of you by being a tad pedantic on my crusading hobbyhorse!


Peggy said...

Great post Catherine, I have often seen similiar spelling mistakes or the wrong word used on posters but have not had the camera with me.I would not think I have a great grasp of the intricacies of English grammer but things like this just jump out at you.My one is 'flowery pops' which a veg shop near here puts out without fail every year.

FoodFunFarmLife said...

I'm glad to see that this doesn't only happen in 3rd world Africa ! I, too, love being pedantic about the English language & grammar. I can't bear the way the English language is being destroyed with so much slang etc. I lived in South Africa for many years & the South Africans have done a great job of messing a lot of the language up, so much so that it has now become "acceptable English" some prime examples (which annoy me EVERY time) are things like "I need the scissor to cut this out"; "Catherine is coming to play by my house today"; "I'm going to the shops to buy me a bread" ... oh it just goes on & on ! (Who was it that said "The slovenliness of the English language shall be the downfall of all mankind ?")

Reader Wil said...

I once saw in Australia in a shop window:" Here womens and mens clothing". And another advertisement with : "Haredresser". I could learn a lot from you about punctuation. I like the joke about the panda.Thanks for your comment on the concentration camps, which I answered on my blog.

Irene said...

I'm not a native English speaker, so I'm extra aware of the mistakes I can make and am always very careful of the language I speak and write. The odd little mistake sneaks past me, but I do like having them pointed out to me. There is a lot of sloppiness in the language and it bothers me to no end. If I can do it right, then surely a native speaker can.

The Cherry Tree Farm said...

A pedantic bore?? You're a genius!! :) Thanks for such a fun post; I'm so glad to find a fellow, um, perfectionist? I think people feel that grammar and punctuation are just things for scholars -- 'real' people have other things to worry about. The truth is, it's language rules that keep us all clear (most of the time) on what everyone is actually saying--and, therefore, thinking.

Obviously, a mis-placed apostrophe isn't going to cause communication breakdown, but it's the principle (not the principal -- hah! get it?). Have you ever read the essay "Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell? I tormet my students with it (I mean, *treat* them to it!) every year. In it, he points out the connection between poor/sloppy language and writing, and poor thought. It's very interesting, when you think of it. Okay, sorry, I think I'm pontificating now.

Oh, and I HAVE had students use "LOL" and smiley-faces -- :) -- in term papers (thankfully, it is a rare occurrence)! Did I mention I think you're a genius, Catherine?? kristin

Catherine said...

Many thanks for all the comments - sorry it took some time to get back and respond to you all - I have been very busy as I am off to the (Irish) Labour Party conference tomorrow and we will be away for a few days, material for a post no doubt!

I am delighted with the feedback on this post, I was not sure if it would offend people as pedantic, so it is good to see like-minded souls out there in blogland!

PEGGY - I love that one from the flowery pops - that's worth a photo! and there are probably lots more out there, just "have camera will post on Blogger" must become us vigilantes' motto! We could have a kind of Top of the (flowery?!)Pops ranking of the best of bloomers! There was a recent Irish Times article about lazy proofreading that lets these homophones and homonyms under the radar in newspaper articles. I will post the link if I can find it on

Catherine said...

LYNDA - I can empathise with your irritation over such mangling of the lingo. I wonder if the South African English language assassination stems from direct translation from Afrikaans to English and somehow crossed over to become an accepted vernacular? I am thinking of the example you gave of ...coming to play by my house - in Dutch that could be ...kom spelen bij mij thuis vandaag... and bij would be the norm rather than to; although ...kom naar mijn huis... might be acceptable - I think Reader Wil or Irene who are Dutch will have to adjudicate here!
I think I mentioned it to someone recently where American and English words were causing confusion that it might have been Churchill who said England and America are two nations divided by a common language! (though it could equally be attributed to Oscar Wilde who has some wonderful quotes!)

Catherine said...

WIL - thanks for those gems - we had a wonderful one in Dublin when we got married in 1981 we saw a shop near the centre - Curtains made to customers own sizes - I kept seeing Maria in The Sound of Music making the von Trapp kids' clothes from the curtains! There are some groups on Facebook with great photos - though the name of one leaves a lot to be desired - I judge you when you use poor grammar - which is pretty appalling in itself!
There are some very witty puns on hair salons in Ireland - my favourite is one in Dublin called Curl up and Dye!
As for your post on the Java concentration camps -what a response! It is still drawing comment and deservedly so, as it is very emotive and should be required reading for any kids studying WW2, one comment was on Tenko and I recall seeing it on telly years back, left an impression. Well done for writing about it, it was very personal.

Catherine said...

IRENE - your command of the English language is amazing, as your syntax and complexity of sentences is spot on, you write your posts like a native speaker and if you didn't point out that it isn't your native language it isn't "vanzelfsprekend"! Thanks for the comment, I enjoy your very honest and open blogposts, and you really let the reader into your daily life. My hubby speaks better English than me and always hammers me at Scrabble but I always say it's strategy and tactics that win, you know where he gets Q and Z on a triple letter score and the whole word gets a triple word score! English is a crazy rules language anyway, it's a miracle any of us can speak it at all!

Catherine said...

KRISTIN - thanks for the compliment but it's probably a bit OTT (see, I do it too!) to use the genius word! I could get a bit too big-headed, and if you know the Irish they are the most self-deprecating people around, well, maybe after the English. We just don't know how to take a compliment and get all flustered and start knocking it. So this time I will just accept it and say thanks! That's why we find interviews so painful, as we are hopeless at selling ourselves; we cringe at the confidence oozing out of Americans and other nationalities and laugh at their talk of self-affirmation but deep down in our psyche we are just envious, (you know, looking in the mirror and telling yourself you are wonderful/beautiful/unique/special etc.). The younger generation have infinitely more confidence than my generation of fifty-somethings, and it is possibly the old Catholic guilt thing whereby the seven deadlies were trotted out regularly to keep us compliant! Of course that's all gone now with the revelations of the church in recent years, tumbling off pedestals following the sex scandals, abuse, collusion, cover-up; no credibility anymore in moralising to their flock.
You must have a mine of gems to draw on from your students - I must look up the Orwell essay, don't know it. As for misplaced apostrophes, not catastrophic, though Lynn Truss has some hilarious examples in the book on the way meaning is altered with different punctuation.

We had a joke in school - you could call it "What women want: the theory-practice gap"!
Before Marriage: Aisle, Altar, Hymn.
After Marriage: I'll alter him.

Glad you enjoyed the post!

Irene said...

I think Western Europeans especially pride themselves on speaking English well. After all, we learn it in school and hear it on TV every day, so we must speak it well. It's our second language.

Jeannette StG said...

Spelling mistakes? Well, we call them typos here. And I do run the spelling feature when I write my blogs, finally after I discovered that I thought my spelling was correct, but it was NOT:) Puntuation? I guess you just have to memorize it. Grammer? That's a hard one, since I never payed attention in English class, and now my past is haunting me.
My dear kids tell me though, because they know how important it is to me :)

Catherine said...

Jeannette, thanks for the comment, I know they are technically typos! But as you say the spell-checker should be enough to manage the spelling - either English or American spellings which should be consistent with what you normally use.
There are some rules for punctuation which Truss goes into in her book, and I still can get confused by them - when and where to use a possessive apostrophe and when not to - its and it's being very confusing - and then the grammar is intuitive in my case as I never could grasp the rules and would find English very hard to learn as a foreign language, as it is so complex. Homonyms/homophones are what bring the spellchecker into disrepute as it doesn't recognise which is the correct form of a word to use. bow and bough come to mind, there and their. you're and your. So my kids tell me when I'm off on a rant - she's going all eats shoots and leaves now! I homeschooled them in Africa and they all speak "proper" so maybe I had some influence on them!