Supervillains come in many guises. For Superman it was Lex Luthor. Batman’s enemy was the waddling Penguin. But to any civilised reader or writer the greatest nemesis, the most galling of the supervillains, is the Phantom Apostropher!
Every few years, frustration overwhelms me and I make a desperate plea that this polluter of our mail, newspapers and streetscapes be vanquished. This month I find myself spurred on by an ally – John Howard, our Hon. P.M.
He has been attacking the rot that runs through our English teaching systems. It has been many years since bad spelling was dismissed as unimportant. Thankfully, spell-checkers have since come to the rescue there. But there is still a valid point in accusations of what the PM calls the “dumbing down” of English teaching; reducing the importance of clear thinking, grammar, spelling and punctuation.
I’m regularly peeved by the number of job applications, company reports, advertising brochures and business letters I see with glaring errors in them. These written by educated, laureated young men and women who would be highly embarrassed if their errors were pointed out to them. Or would they? You tell me.
Now you might be saying, “This bloke is complaining about literacy, but he can be pretty fast and loose with his grammar, too.” True. I use one-word sentences, end lines with prepositions, toss in vulgarisms and dodgy sentence constructions.
My paragraphs are too short, often breaking up logical flows. And I start sentences with conjunctions. In a grammar exam I’d be classed as a dunce. But if you’ll excuse the name-dropping, my teachers were Hemingway and Steinbeck, Durrell and Lawrence. They played fast and loose with grammar – I can remember being shocked by a Hemingway story where he wrote six sequential sentences in one paragraph, each beginning with And.
However, none of these guys would have put an apostrophe in the wrong place. They knew their grammar thoroughly, and that’s what gave them permission to twist it and bend it. They created exciting shapes – but they didn’t break it.
It’s the same with your brochures and advertisements and catalogues and business letters. Three “ands” in one sentence? Grammatically incorrect. But you know I broke the rules because I knew the rules, it was a deliberate affectation, a style thing. But if I’d written “brochure’s and advertisment’s…” you’d say: “This guy is ignorant, he was obviously badly schooled,” and you wouldn’t trust anything else I’d written.
This is why it’s important to get it right. And why your junior staff need to learn it, too. (How many bosses are made to look like dunces because their secretaries can’t punctuate a dictated letter?)
The rules are simple, so brush up. The stakes could be much higher than you think.
Ray Beatty runs Marketing Solutions, a consultancy advising companies on how to turn around their unsuccessful advertising campaigns.
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The views expressed above do not necessarily represent the editorial opinion of Australian Anthill.