How many ways is there to spell ‘omelette’? I see lots of attempts, particularly on those boards that cafés put out on the pavement to entice you in. I suppose it is a tricky word – is it double ‘m’ and one ‘t’ and what about the ‘e’ on the end? There is a lot to think about.
At one time I would have become quite enraged about such an abuse of the language and disparaging about the abilities and intelligence of the person who put chalk to board. Do they not own a dictionary? I do. I use it sometimes, along with a spellchecker. It is an old habit and one I find comforting around certain words – separate, diarrhoea, deterioration.
However I no longer think it is my role to get worked up about the mistakes of others and fulminate about the deterioration of grammar in the written word. I suppose that makes me a reformed, ex-member of the grammar police who now defends the right of grocers to place apostrophes wherever they want.
I am amazed in my change of heart. Rather than get upset and irritated by grammatical lapses I now tend to find some amusement in the richness of it all. Why shouldn’t my local café advertise sanwiches and breakfast’s – it seems pretty obvious what they are offering. And really in the grand scheme of things surely the precise spelling is unimportant – the significant bit is being able to communicate what food is available.
This richness and diversity also captures the peculiarities of local accents. I remember the graffiti I saw when driving through Liverpool. It was intended to shame a police grass but it just made me laugh. Why? Because it had been spelt in a Scouse accent – Judis. Write what you want to say, write how you would say it.
But it isn’t just spelling – see what I did there. Starting a sentence with ‘But’ and ‘And’ was forbidden when I was at school. Not sure why and I suspect no-one else is. It is just something we are told not to do. I have since read that there is nothing inherently wrong in starting a sentence in that way – just custom and practice, and snobbery, tells us not to.
My sister once had some academic work criticised because of the use of ‘they’ throughout instead of the cumbersome ‘s/he’ configuration. I remember because I typed it up for her and I think I persuaded her it was acceptable to use the plural in a singular situation. Perhaps I just wanted to make it easier to type. But why not? Who gets to decide? Why should anyone decide?
I know there are instances where the choice about the placing of an apostrophe can alter the meaning of a sentence. Eats, shoots and leaves? And so can using the wrong word. So in those case communication is not achieved – or at least not what was intended. But when the meaning is clear …
I think it is the snobbery bit that gets me most these days. Pride in knowing the ‘correct’ way to write and speak is one of the many ways that it is acceptable for class to raise its ugly head. The division between the educated classes and the rest of us is never so obvious than when someone gets snippy about language. I used to work in a University and so have plenty experience of my work being ‘corrected’ – sometimes incorrectly and, more often than not, based on a misguided sense of superiority. It got particularly hairy around the words borrowed from Latin – criteria/criterion, forum/fora – and the use of colons and semi-colons. I suppose showing off a classical education was important – to some. I studied Latin at a grammar school but I reckon if we are including a word in our language then we adapt it and don’t have to stick with the rules of a dead tongue.
I am letting grammar offenders slip off my list – it simply isn’t worth getting excited about. Language is organic, with new words introduced and existing words changing or falling out of use. I reckon that our skills as communicators are sufficiently malleable to accommodate a stray apostrophe and misspelt word here and their.