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Our world of words.

Thoughts on a changing language

Why are we asking children questions on spelling and grammar that their parents can’t answer? 44’s Chuck Grieve offers a theory…

Spelling and grammar have been in the news recently, probably for the wrong reasons. Leaking test questions and answers sounds like a strategy with a shaky future.

A more interesting aspect of these stories is the complaint by parents, teachers and others-who-should-know, that they are stumped by questions intended for young children.

Why is this? Possibly because spelling, grammar and punctuation as distinct areas of study, and therefore needing to be tested and measured, has largely been squeezed out of the UK education system over many decades. The teaching – and by implication, the use – of orthodox language has lost its importance.

George Orwell spotted this trend 70 years ago. Writing in his seminal 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’[1], he said: “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.”

But is it, and are people bothered? Who cares in a world of the 140 character tweet, where txt msg abbreviations are all but the norm? It’s not about language; it’s about communication, right?

It may well be, but there’s a caveat. As Fred Reed put it in ‘Good English RIP’[2], some would argue “that any language is acceptable provided that it communicates. The problem… is precisely that it doesn’t communicate well.”

We laugh knowingly about sentences that clearly don’t say what the writer intended, for example ‘He saw an accident walking down the street,’ or when an author like Lynne Truss uses bad punctuation to make a point in the title of a book: ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’.

Eats-shoots-and-leaves-by-Lynne-TrussThe question for a communicator is whether the reader in such cases sees a message or just a joke.

The communicator’s challenge is to make sure it’s the message that sticks.

That’s where the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation come into their own. I like to think of them as conventions rather than rules. A lot of grammar is arbitrary; a lot of spelling is quixotic. But they are the foundations for communication, along with punctuation which simply makes it easier to navigate through written material.

Language and its conventions evolve. Some say English is evolving faster than any other language because there are so many people using its multitude of dialects. More than ever, good and effective communication is a matter of not just what you write but how you write it.

It’s something we talk about all the time at 44. If you’d like to join the conversation, give us a call.




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