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issue 61

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Training Bulletin Issue 61

What do a pop star and a pretender to the throne of Westeros have in common?

They both think grammar matters. Two pop culture moments recently suggest that in the age of tweeting and texting, grammar, spelling and punctuation still matter to many of us.

Harry Styles corrects a fan's grammar – “your nice” to “you're nice”! Stannis Baratheon knows the difference between “less” and “fewer”! Cheers from all who think grammar matters!

It's so unfashionable to think that correct grammar and punctuation are worth pursuing that there isn't even a nice name for people who feel that way – we're pedants or grammar police at best.

There may be lots of valid reasons for getting things wrong. You may be a foreign speaker of English, you may not have been taught the right way at school, or what is now considered right may have changed. But whatever the reason, bad grammar can still cause you problems.

Your words tell your reader about you

Making a character a grammar pedant can be a short cut used by screen writers to demonstrate something about their personality. Stannis Baratheon isn't the most endearing chap in Game of Thrones. Don Draper, from Mad Men, also a man with a few undesirable traits, was shown correcting someone else's grammar a couple of times during the series (“nothing” to “anything”, “no more” to “any more”).

Interestingly, this might have backfired. There were some people whose reactions weren't favourable, but for the most part viewers came out in favour of both Stannis and Don – we have given some links below to the stories.

In the case of Harry Styles, the approval was pretty much universal. My own personal perception of him went from boyband member with a bad hairdo to, actually, quite a personable young man. I had never really cared who he was – why, yes, I am old enough to be his grandmother, how can you tell? But suddenly I have something in common with Harry Styles and I like him better for it.

Not just because we both agreed on a specific issue – which is quite a good start – but also because, by making the correction that he did, Harry Styles showed himself to be someone who cares that things should be right.

Yes, but not everybody cares

Of course, not everybody cares. Some defiantly so, hence the terms “pedant” and “grammar police”. But when you're running a business, when you're putting together a project team or making a hiring decision, then having a quick way to judge whether a person cares that things should be right becomes a very valuable tool. And that's why bad grammar can still cause you problems: people making decisions that affect you can assume that you don't know what is right, haven't bothered to learn it and don't even care.

People needing to make decisions quickly often rely on something about a person's behaviour that gives them clues to their character. Think about sayings such as “Never trust a thin cook,” or if you want a more classical example, Julius Caesar's assessment of the character of Cassius:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

Grammar, punctuation and brown M&Ms

All sorts of things can be taken as indications of character and used as shortcuts to making judgements. Have you heard the one about Van Halen and the brown M&Ms? The 90s rock band, at the time, had the most elaborate set up ever seen in the music industry. Their sound stage was massive, their complex electrical requirements had 850 lights alone, and that's before you even started thinking about the sound.

They had a clause buried in their long, detailed contracts instructing how things had to be done that said the organiser, in addition to everything else, had to have available backstage lots of bowls of M&Ms, from which all the brown ones had to have been removed.

This was their quick clue – if they found brown M&Ms then it was more likely that the organisers hadn't read the instructions or had also been sloppy about things that could kill someone, such as incorrect wiring or poor stage assembly, so they knew to get those things checked by their own people.

When you think of it that way, it sounds pretty sensible, actually. There are an awful lot of other ways we judge people that are downright offensive. Next to all of those, correct use of grammar, punctuation or spelling are in fact reasonably logical predictors of the ability to learn and the will to do things properly.

No excuse, really

The Daily Mail recently carried a story about a class of nine year olds who were taught the correct use of the apostrophe in one lesson. They were asked to find examples of misuse over the weekend, and one girl found 15 in a 15 minute walk around her town.

If children can learn the right use that easily, and reliably spot mistakes, there is no excuse for anyone over the age of nine continuing to get it wrong.

So what was Harry's problem? What is the difference between “less” and “fewer”?

A fan held up a poster that said “Hi Harry your so nice” and he corrected it to “you're”, which is short for “you are”. “Your” would have been correct if she'd been talking about something of his, such as “your hair's so nice”.

You use “less” the same time you'd use “much” – “How much sugar is in that orange juice?” “Not as much as in this one / less than in this one.” In both of those examples, you are talking about a quantity of a single substance, sugar. “How many oranges go into a bottle of that juice?” “Not as many as in this one / fewer than in this one.” In this case you are talking about countable items, oranges. Stannis Baratheon took exception to “less fingernails” (after he'd ordered the fingers in question to be cut off) and “less enemies”.

Plain Words can help

If you are concerned that the way your staff write gives a poor impression of their skills or of your organisation, take a look at our list of training courses here, or contact us   to find out more.

Some interesting links to the examples we've discussed

BBC Newsbeat Harry Styles proves he's a stickler for good grammar

Stannis Grammatheon Less and Fewer lesson, Radio Times


Ultimate Classic Rock, David Lee Roth

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