The Bad Grammar Awards’ bad grammar

The Bad Grammar Awards have apparently come round again. I wrote about these last year. My basic opinion hasn’t changed in the time since.

I still think that to conceive of there being any such thing as a single English grammar (and therefore any such thing as universal principles of “correct” and “incorrect” usage) is both ignorant and foolish. I remain convinced that the primary purpose of the award – and prescriptive grammar in general – is to facilitate the identification of an “in group” who use language “the right way”, and thus to facilitate the corresponding disparagement of people who use it in a different way. I continue in the view that the only rational basis on which to criticise a particular use of language is that it makes it more difficult to determine meaning, not just that it fails to adhere to an arbitrary set of “rules”. Finally, I remain firmly persuaded that ultra-formal, grammatically “correct” English is often decidedly unpleasant to read – itself a very significant failing, given that the whole purpose of language is to facilitate the transmission of information. This last is a point I made at length last year, in a show-and-tell kind of way, by producing a grammatically “correct” post that had all the energy, grace and vigour of a dead – but perfectly formed – warthog.

This time round, then, I’m going to dispense with the wider discussion, and concentrate on the supposed “failings” of the award nominees. I haven’t been able to find an actual shortlist, so I’m relying on the summary posted at The Guardian. The article there is credited to ‘Guardian staff’ but since, in my online searchings, I have found the exact same article repeated word for word on other news sites my guess is that ‘Guardian staff’ is a euphemism for agency reporter.

Let’s start with Tristram Hunt, who we are told is nominated for ‘tautology and other errors’. (Tristram Hunt, by the way, is Labour’s education spokesman, and therefore the bête noire of Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Last year’s award was won by a group of academics who had written an open letter criticising … Michael Gove. You might detect a theme here.) Only one example of Hunt’s supposed tautology is provided: ‘ongoing continuing professional development’. Unfortunately, this isn’t a tautology.

Tautology is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as

The saying of the same thing twice over in different words

At first glance it might appear that the juxtaposition of the words ‘ongoing’ and ‘continuing’ is tautologous, but this is to ignore the fact that the phrase ongoing professional development is a noun – specifically a compound noun, like swimming pool lifeguard, which is formed by adding one or more adjectives to a bare noun, or nouns. Moreover, continuing professional development is a pretty well known noun, at least in some circles. It has its own wikipedia page, and the requirement to document in exhaustive detail their continuing professional development is the bane of many nurses’ lives. It is routinely used in phrases like “I‘ve stopped doing my continuing professional development” which make its status as a noun abundantly clear.

Compound nouns can sometimes give rise to sentences that look odd. For example, the exclamation “the swimming pool lifeguard is sinking!” might seem oxymoronic (if she’s ‘swimming’, how can she be ‘sinking’?) unless the entire phrase swimming pool lifeguard is recognised as a noun. Similarly, the phrase ‘ongoing continuing professional development’ might seem tautologous, but only if the entire phrase continuing professional development is not recognised as a noun.

Had they parsed Mr Hunt’s sentence correctly, the organisers and judges of the Bad Grammar Awards must perforce have recognised that continuing professional development was a compound noun, and that the complete phrase, therefore, was not tautologous. Since they have labelled it as tautologous, it follows that they have failed to identify parts of speech correctly. This is a very fundamental error, and it seriously undermines the Awards as a whole. If the organisers and judges can’t even recognise a noun when they see one, why should anyone take anything they have to say about grammar seriously?

None of the other citations represent quite such egregious errors on the part of the organisers, but that’s not to say they’re perfect. For example, the army poster that announced ‘For any inquiries please contact you’re nearest Army Careers Office’ is taken to task for only one “error” (you’re for your), when by my count it contains an additional two: inquiries for enquiries (noted by The Guardian, but apparently not the organisers), and a missing comma between the opening dependent clause and the main body of the sentence. Such apparent oversights do not inspire confidence in the organisers’ powers of observation, nor in their attention to detail.

I’d also argue that, while the primary school which posted the sign “We all wash are hands after playing in the sandpits” has undoubtedly made a mistake, this kind of homophone substitution (where one word is replaced with another that sounds the same, as in the very common their/ there/ they’re confusion) is more of a spelling error than a grammatical one. It certainly seems more plausible to me that someone made the superficial mistake of typing a-r-e when they were thinking our than that they used the plural present tense of the verb ‘to be’ with deliberate intent. In a similar way, I think the organisers have misidentified the error contained in the phrase ‘Your appointment has now been organised to attend Queen Mary’s Hospital…’. By labelling this subject/ object confusion they imply that the sentence creates uncertainty as to who or what was to attend hospital – the patient, or the appointment. It seems to me rather more likely that it’s a straightforward error in which the writer was always intending to type ‘Your appointment to attend Queen Mary’s Hospital has been organised…’ and simply got the words in the wrong order. The actual meaning is not, it seems to me, in any doubt in either version.

Queen Mary’s Hospital are also taken to task for a misplaced possessive apostrophe, which is one of those “errors” that is so commonplace, and makes so little difference to ease of communication, that its days of being labelled as an error seem likely to be limited. Within a few decades, by my guess, it will be regarded as an acceptable – though perhaps regrettable – orthographic variation. In a similar vein, Tesco are criticised for trumpeting the fact that reduced packaging for their toilet rolls had meant ‘Same Luxury. Less Lorries’, but the process of eliding less with fewer (but not fewer with less) is even further forward, to the point that many would already regard Tesco’s usage as unexceptionable. It also seems a little odd to strain at the gnat of ‘less’, but readily swallow the camel of not one but two incomplete sentence fragments, as well as inappropriate capitalisation. In order to be grammatically “correct”, shouldn’t the slogan have read ‘The same luxury, but fewer lorries’?

As for the other “error” that Tesco are hauled over the coals for, well, that’s one of those that has pretty much never been an error. The organisers take exception, you see, to a double superlative: ‘most tastiest’. Unfortunately for them, however, double superlatives are found in the finest of writing. When even William Shakespeare – routinely regarded as the greatest ever practitioner of the English language – has used the double superlative form to add emphasis (King Lear, Act Two, Scene 3: ‘most poorest’), it really shouldn’t be classed as an error.

Jeremy Paxman, who is acting as lead judge for the awards, is quoted by The Guardian as saying

those who don’t care about [grammar] shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say – if indeed they’re aware of what they’re trying to say.

These criticisms are in part levelled, you will recall, at a Tesco copywriter who has learned at Shakespeare’s knee, and emulated him in the use of an emphatic double superlative. Set aside for now the unreasonableness of holding a journeyman writer to a higher standard than the foremost poet in the language, and think instead about what these words mean in direct relation to Shakespeare. Because of his “error” with the double superlative, Shakespeare has opened himself up to Paxman’s insinuation that he may not even have known what he was ‘trying’ to say, and certainly cannot be ‘surprised if we pay no attention to anything’ he wrote.

Thus the battle lines are drawn: on one side William Shakespeare, the most influential anglophone writer in history, still discussed and loved four and a half centuries after his death; and on the other an over-praised journalist and bad historian who is accustomed to using blunt aggression in place of forensic questioning when he interviews politicians. Which side are you on? That of the man who took the English language and made it sing like it had never sung before, and has never sung since? Or that of Paxman, whose nightly utterances – howsoever they may adhere to the heavily criticised precepts of Gwynne’s Grammar – make it sound like something coughed up by an unusually petulant cat?

Perhaps that’s too unequal a fight – a bit like sending an unarmed and under-prepared Chloe Smith into the Newsnight studio – so let’s think about this in another way. Let’s judge Mr Paxman by his own standards. What should we make of a self-appointed champion of grammar who doesn’t seem to care sufficiently about the topic to have acquainted himself with the concept of a compound noun? I believe it was Shakespeare who originated the phrase hoist with his own petard. A kind of poetic justice there, if you like.

Please feel free to point and laugh at me for the various grammatical and other errors that are guaranteed, thanks to sod’s law and my own indifferent abilities, to be strewn throughout this post. But please be aware that only constructions which harm comprehensibility are actual errors. Other things – such as, for example, opening the preceding sentence with a conjunction, or allowing an infinitive to blatantly split – I have done with deliberate intent, since I reject the assertion that they are wrong.

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One Response to The Bad Grammar Awards’ bad grammar

  1. I know, I know, first to comment on my own post, it’s shameful, but…

    At the time I posted this I didn’t know that Jeremy Paxman was standing down from Newsnight. Although it had been announced I had not read it, since I’ve been in the habit lately of checking the news only once a day, and first thing in the morning.

    Had I known, I might have soft-pedalled my criticism of him a little. Or I might not have done, on the basis that: it’s already quite mild; everything I wrote seems to me to be fair comment; he is not himself known for soft-pedalling his criticism of others; and he has announced that he is stepping down from one TV programme, not that he’s altogether retiring, or anything worse. Either way, I would have stopped to think about what I was writing in the light of his announcement, had I known about it at the time of writing.

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