In my last post about Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, I made the observation that since the book came out in 2003 rather a lot more content had been created – perhaps too much for the grammar police to comfortably place under strict surveillance. With the advent of Twitter, Facebook, blogging and the like, the waters of what constitutes acceptable for the reading public have been muddied.
And the worldwide web is now quite the beast, swollen with the musings – professional and otherwise – of people from all walks of life. Plenty of it will be engaging and well written, but a large quantity will not. And although a handy guide like Eats, Shoots & Leaves is perhaps needed more than ever, something tells me many people will give such missives a wide berth.
A clue as to why comes perhaps from the origins of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It grew out of a Radio 4 series written and presented by Truss called Cutting a Dash. Informative and amusing as it was, there was a strong element of ‘preaching to the converted’. A learned crowd will always nod furiously at facts they already know.
But that is not to dismiss them as cranks or always believe those with a robust understanding of punctuation are ‘grammar bullies’. To the professional content creator, such people must always be seen as potential customers or clients. And pedants hold a power that those who don’t care for grammar do not.
Strict pedants have the power to diminish your brand, chip by tiny chip. While many people will forgive a poorly constructed sentence on a website or a misspelled word in a shop front, there are plenty who would not. To err is to lose a potential customer in store, or a click to conversion online.
What’s more, in the digital age pedants are all too ready to aim their smartphone cameras at mistakes and record them for posterity. In the past your error would have been duly noted and corrected. Today your faux pas may be recorded online and could remain there indefinitely.
Rules of the game
So while pedants take their reactions to poor grammar and punctuation to the extreme, there is something more moderate folk can do. We can quietly brush up on our knowledge and apply it, hoping others not in the know will catch on. We can patiently guide fellow writers in the direction of the rules without being condescending.
In this way, books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves definitely have their place – instructing the custodians of grammar, such as journalists, in confirming or refreshing their own knowledge of the rules, and leading by example without intimidation or judgment. Reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves will show anyone that language is constantly changing anyway. For example, what counts as a misplaced apostrophe today – potato’s where potatoes should be – back in the 19th century was a legitimate use, “to separate a plural ‘s’ from a foreign word ending in a vowel and thus prevent confusion about pronunciation”. The potted history of the comma is equally illuminating.
While some people don’t much care for a certain standard of English in the material they read, to the professional content creator their accuracy should always be their honour. Accuracy gives our work currency. It is our duty to uphold a common standard no matter how difficult that is to follow, because it is ultimately what sets the amateur apart from the professional.
The onus is on the amateur to up their game in their grammar, not for the professional to lower their standard to meet them half way.