Walking away from London Bridge station the other day I noticed a new poster for the London Dungeon showing a few flags and declaring “Now available in these foreign languages”.

“foreign” jars: to the people the poster was seeking to attract the language would probably not be foreign, but native (it would have been easy enough and so much better simply to write “available in these languages”). As a piece of copywriting it fails to put itself in the minds of likely readers, but then I imagine it was not written by a professional (if it was the London Dungeon should be demanding its money back).

There’s nothing new in businesses thinking that a simple task doesn’t require special verbal attention: it’s impossible to travel on the rail network without being hit by clumsily-expressed signage or tannoy announcements, and in a sense it doesn’t matter too much. After all we can usually work out what they mean, so the desired communication happens. I doubt most people notice, because for the most part we we expect no more. I’d argue that if these things were better expressed they might have more impact (why do something badly when you can do it well?) but I’d have to agree that much of the time the intensity of this impact might not be critical.

As I walked away from the London Dungeon a bus passed me, a banner ad along its side promoting “twelve months free broadband” (sic) with Sky. Once again I imagine we all understand what’s meant, but I wonder if the Sky executives who commissioned this would be happy if the banner contained a spelling mistake. It would still communicate, but they would understand it was embarrassing, unprofessional, reflecting badly on them as a business.

Since it contains a grammatical howler as serious as any spelling mistake you have to wonder what’s going on. Are the Sky executives more comfortable because they believe fewer people will notice their ignorance? This doesn’t alter the fact that it is an absolutely basic error: good writing is often subtle, the appearance of effortlessness only achieved by skilful effort but we’re not talking about that kind of difficulty. We’re talking about something as simple as getting the subject of a photo in focus.

Apostrophes are much misused but they are really not that difficult to master, and certainly anyone who claims to be a professional writer should be able to use them correctly.

I don’t care when a greengrocer writes “tomato’s” on a blackboard. It’s a mistake but it’s not really part of the greengrocer’s job to be grammatically correct, nor could we reasonably think worse of his produce for his mistake.

But that ad will not have been slapped on the bus without passing through the hands of people who claim to be professional communicators.

(If you’re wondering, there should be an apostrophe after “months”: a fuller form of the sentence could be “twelve months of free broadband”, but the apostrophe can do the genitive work of the “of”. Leaving out both is not defensible.)

Why does it matter? It’s true that no lives are at risk, but that would be to apply a false scale. It’s partly a reasonable irritation at this manifestation of bogus professionalism: if you’re going to claim to be an expert in communication you should command at least a basic technical expertise. It’s also, critically, a worry about baleful influence.

Discussions about grammar usually involve some consideration of descriptivism v prescriptivism. The latter, like moral absolutism, is only really tenable if you’re prepared to ignore the last few hundred years of social history, but more than this, I suspect people are only drawn to absolutism because they misunderstand what relativism/descriptivism actually means.

Certainly in terms of language and grammar it starts with the observation that ideas about best practice are inevitably determined by current usage, an evolving thing. In our age of unbridled individualism (the air is thick with isms!) this is too often taken to mean that anything goes (hence the retreat to absolutism, with its comfort of false certainties), but linguistic descriptivism does not mean this at all. As Wittgenstein noted, language rests on a system of largely tacit rules (most people master language without having to think too consciously about those rules), which themselves depend on an evolved consensus about meaning. So if a man points at a bird and says “that’s a nice dog” we can only appeal to common usage to argue that he’s made a mistake. If he wants to insist that for him these flying things are called dogs in Wittgenstein’s terms he’s stopped playing the language game and there’s not much we can do about it, except to regard him as eccentric or even mad.

In less obvious cases we have to accept that meanings shift. Because I’m an old fart I might use the word “disinterested” to mean “without bias” (its usual meaning until fairly recently) but I’d have to acknowledge that most people hearing me would think I meant “uninterested” and so misunderstand me. Although I could appeal to precedent I’d have to accept that if I cared about being understood the onus was on me to go with the shifted consensus.

On the other hand I recently wrote a short (and positive) review of an art show, in which I described the way some photos had been posed as “artless”. One online fan of the artist took umbrage, because he thought I was saying the pictures were artistically bad. I was able to explain that he’d misunderstood me, that he’d made a mistake, and everyone calmed down.

Consensus is a slippery arbiter, but it is real enough. I’m well aware too that there are issues of class and power surrounding whatever might be deemed correct, but for the moment at least the apostrophe is generally accepted as an important and useful part of the English language. It helps us to make ourselves clear in many different ways.

So for an individual, or a body of individuals, to decide that it’s optional or even undesirable is much the same as our man deciding to call a bird a dog: it’s not up to any one of us to make that decision.

Returning to the side of the bus, when so-called professionals in their ignorance make these basic mistakes they are abusing their influence (and sadly they have an influence). This kind of bad practice is far more insidious than the clumsiness of the in-house amateur, but let’s not dignify such culpable mistakes wherever they appear as anything other than ignorance and folly.

There are lines to be drawn, barricades to be mounted.


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