We are in the middle of a secret war.
Two hidden societies have been feuding for centuries. Outwardly, they are ordinary people, just like you or me. You could not spot one just by looking at them. They don’t have horns on their heads or wear a uniform.
The thing that defines them is their hatred for each other. They are as implacably opposed as Capulets and Montagues, werewolves and vampires, Spurs and Arsenal, demons and angels, terminators and … those hunky men from the future who fight terminators.
Their battleground is grammar.
On one side we have the Grammar Police. They are sworn to keep the English language pure and unsullied. Never mind that nobody knows what “unsullied” truly means. Or that nothing ever gets “sullied”. I sully, you sully, we are sullying.
Where was I? Oh, yes – the Grammar Police. They just can’t stop themselves from spotting spelling or grammatical mistakes. They see these mistakes everywhere. On television. On advertising hoardings. In newspapers and books. On grocers’s’s label’ss for tomato’se.
Most of all, the Grammar Police hunt on the internet. That’s where their natural enemy lives, their nemesis – the Grammar Outlaw.
You see, the Grammar Outlaw either doesn’t know how to do grammar or doesn’t care. If “UR” is acceptable text speak because we know what it means, then surely “your” and “you’re” are interchangeable? Does it really matter?
It matters to the Grammar Police. Alarm bells sound in their heads when they see a mistake. It actually causes them physical pain. A mistake is like a piece of dog mess on a pristine white carpet. It is as if the word is written in vivid neon, or scrawled in blood. It stands out.
This is when the Grammar Policeman (or woman) has to struggle with inner demons (or demonesses). Do they point it out or do they keep quiet about it?
This has to be one of the biggest dilemmas of our age. Every instinct cries out that mistakes should be purged. The wrong-doer must be hedumacated. The Grammar Policeman (or woman) may not have been born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but they have inherited a red pen in their top pocket. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
There is a world of difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma”. That little comma tells you whether to set an extra place at the table or to buy a bigger oven.
But there’s a problem. The Grammar Outlaw doesn’t want to be led gently into the promised land of good grammar. They usually don’t take it well someone corrects them. Its not sutch a big deel, innit? You should be listening to what I’ve got ter say.
We thought we had found a cure. Spell checkers and auto-correct would eliminate mistakes and bring peace and harmony to the galaxy. Like a silicon babel fish, our computers and phablets would translate from yoof into culture.
Sadly, this turned out to be a false dawn. It was no cure. Or maybe the virus simply mutated to render the cure useless. Now we are making other mistakes:
… witch for which
… your for you’re
… its for it’s
… pubic for public
Worse, the autocorrect is making idiots of all of us. Some programs assume that if we type wallies or wellies, we really mean willies. Just as a fr’instance.
There is a transatlantic dimension to this. Let’s draw a polite veil over color, honor and their ilk. And let’s not even mention practice/ practise or licence/ license.
There are some battles which the Police have lost. Ladies and Gentleman, pray a moment’s silence for the split infinitive. It was once strictly verboten and very naff. Now it is apparently permissible, but still rather naff.
I find myself stranded in the middle of this war. In no man’s (or woman’s) land. On the one hand, I have strong Grammar Policeman (or woman) tendencies. I experience deep discomfort when someone gets muddled over “less and fewer”. My car apparently produces “less emissions” …. Aaaargh! Fewer!
On the other hand, I have a rebellious streak. There is a little bit of the outlaw in me (stop sniggering at the back). Does it really matter if I start a sentence with “and” or “but”? Or have a sentence without a verb? Occasionally.
After all, I made a proposal of marriage to my beloved with a text message which said “WYMM?”. If I allow that for myself, then I should not complain when someone says “CU L8R” or gets mixed up between UR, your and you’re.
By the way, I ought to point out that the aforementioned text message had been preceded by months of begging, pleading and uncontrolled pitiful grovelling.
There is hope. An uneasy truce is forming between the Grammar Police and the Grammar Outlaws. You could call it a linguistic Geneva Convention, a grammatical Switzerland, a hunting season for misplaced apostrophes, a fishing quota for missing commas.
In this truce, a mistake may still be hunted in published writing. The television is fair game. Books. Advertising. Anything that you pay for. These are things that ought to be 100% correct and tickety-boo.
But texts and forum posts are allowed to run wild. Grammatical and spelling mistakes can live in peace in their natural habitat without anyone shooting them. The Grammar Police have to keep their correction light sabres in their pockets.
Being serious for a second, this means that we have to listen to what people are saying – paying them respect. The message matters more than the way it is expressed.
You might think that the Grammar Police would be infuriated by this state of affairs. Mistakes allowed to run free, where they can reproduce and make hordes of baby mistakes? How could a policeman tolerate such a state of affairs?
The answer is that the Grammar Police have invented a secret game. They still spot the mistakes, but now they only point them out to other Grammar Policemen (or women).
In my version of this game, I look for mistakes in the blurbs of self-published novels. The holy grail is to spot a mistake in the title. I haven’t achieved that one yet. My PB (personal best) is a mistake in the second word of a blurb.
Sometimes the mistakes can take on a haunting or elegiac quality. I saw a science fiction story recently where the characters settled on an uninhibited planet.
But my all-time favourite has to be the forum post where someone called someone else a “pre Madonna”. Grammar policemen (or women) feel free to chuckle quietly to yourself, or in those private places where only police personnel are allowed.
But keep your red pen in your pocket, okay?