Wednesday 31 August 2011

Grammatical Gripe

Image by Horia Varlan

Grammar, like the picture above, is a bloody jigsaw puzzle. Despite having a higher than average reading ability when I started high school, I was rather a late bloomer with regards to spelling. Even now I class myself as homonymically challenged (I find it hard too know witch ones two use) with a propensity for whiz-deletion and comma splicing. 

I owe much of my hard-earned ability with grammar to learning to type in the days when spell-checkers simply beeped at you when you got it wrong. I spent hours going back and trying again.

Contrary to many people's opinion, you don't have to be brilliant at spelling and grammar to be an engaging writer or a great storyteller. After all, the very art of storytelling has its beginnings in the spoken, not the written, word.

Spelling was luxuriantly variable...You could write 'St Paul's' or 'St Powles', and no one seemed to notice or care....People could be extrordinarily casual even with their own names...Philip Henslowe, the empresario, indifferently wrote 'Henslowe' or 'Hensley' when signing his own name, and others made it Hinshley, Hinchlow, Hensclow, Hynchlowes, Inclow, Hinchloe and half a dozen more. More than eighty spellings of Shakespeare's name have been recorded...the Oxford English Dictionary...prefers Shakspere. Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled 'words' two ways on the title page.

Even today, there are two schools of thought. I shall defer to those more articulate than myself. In the corner for strict spelling regulations, we have David Mitchell:

In the other corner stands his comedy partner, Robert Webb, pushing the argument that it's all about communication, rather than rules:

This entire argument has me in turmoil. If you believe that language is an art, then the chances are that you will put in the time and effort to learn it well. But, as Mitchell points out, it's usually those of us who consider ourselves proficient who suddenly make the worst mistakes - usually after writing an officious piece pointing out where someone else has gone wrong.

I admit it. It drives me up the wall when I see were instead of we're, its instead of it's and there instead of their. The basics. But however harshly I judge others, I judge myself far harder - I'm a repeat perpetrator of a number of grammatical and homonymical offenses. My heart leaps to hear Webb's rebuke, and delights in the Shakespearean freedom of it all.

But I doubt that I could honestly live like that.

However much we don't want it to be true - we are judged on our proficiency of the written word. Nothing spells it out clearer than this article by Sean Coughlan of the BBC, published in July: analysis of website figures shows a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half... Sales figures suggest misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website's credibility...

Now, I did say that it's not necessary to be a great speller or grammarian in order to write engaging stories. That's true - to an extent. It's true in other fields, too. For instance, I made a living out of number crunching statistical data having completely flunked mathematics at GCSE.

The point is - I understood statistics. I got the relationship between patterns of numbers. I don't understand how to divide two numbers, or how to find their square root in my head.

But then, to be fair, I really don't need to. Because some clever soul invented calculators. I can't even draw a pie chart - but that's okay, Excel can.

Similarly, you may not understand the rules of grammar and spelling, but you may understand perfectly well what makes a really good story or a fascinating character.

As Mitchell pointed out, with an online dictionary - or even one in tree format - you can always look up what you don't know. Google's full of wonderful little tools such as 'define <word>', which instantly gives you the definition for anything you're uncertain about.

It doesn't really matter if you're not grammatically gifted. What matters is that you recognise your weakness and find the right tools for the job.

As one of the greatest minds that ever lived put it:

Never memorize what you can look up in books. - Albert Einstein

The thinking there being that the brain is more than a receptacle for facts. It's the tool used for taking two pieces of information and making something greater out of them.

With that in mind, don't let a fear of grammar and spelling deter you from writing. But do invest in making use of tools that can compensate for that lack of knowledge. There are plenty of them: dictionaries, spell-checkers, thesauruses, proofreaders etc. That's not lazy, that's ingenuity in problem solving.

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