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Should we all love the Grammar Vigilante?

(Image Credit: BBC News)

You may have seen the story in the news recently about the “Grammar Vigilante.”

It was the story of a man who, in the middle of the night, paid visits to shops in his local area and made changes to the punctuation of their signs. Why would one man take it upon himself to do this?

Despite being a highly-developed nation with an advanced education system, around 16% of adults in England alone – around 5.1 million people – can be described as ‘functionally illiterate’. According to the Literacy Trust, many at this skill level would be unable to pass an English GCSE and around 5% have an ability below the expectations made of an 11 year-old.

Is technology making us lazy writers?

As technology advances, however, is the need to command a language as strong as it always has been or can we rely on computers to take out the ‘hard work’ of getting to grips with English?

On mobile phones, there is predictive text. This is where the software in the phone will predict what the user is trying to say by the words already used in the text and it will insert a word that it thinks will fit the sentence - sometimes without the user typing it (in certain circumstances, this can be really embarrassing, especially if the sender does not read the text before it is sent!)

Predictive text can be a help sometimes, for instance, when writing a shopping list. The user only has to type in a few letters of the item they want to buy and the predictive text will write the rest, for instance, the user types in ‘tom’ and the predictive text will complete the word with ‘atoes’, hence, ‘tomatoes’.

As word processing packages for computers have evolved, the need to be able to spell correctly, or use the correct punctuation, has also disappeared as the various software are able to correct spellings automatically as well as indicate where punctuation is missing or has been added in the wrong place.

This, in turn, can make the writer of the piece lazy because they know if they make a mistake, the computer will underline the error or even, in some cases, correct it automatically.

Although this is the case, it is still very important that the writer does have a good knowledge of the English Language: when putting pen to paper, the writer ought to know how to spell correctly, what punctuation to use and where to place it. Otherwise, the written piece will not convey the message intended: for students, this could result in poor marks and for businesses, it could be the difference between winning work and not.

Using proper English is also very important when applying for jobs. Many applications will not get past the resourcing team if they are badly written with poor spelling and bad grammar.

The frustration of the literate?

For those who are at the other end of the literacy scale – with a good command of the English language – perhaps it can be frustrating to see the very public mistakes made on signage, posters, leaflets and other written materials.

The work of the Grammar Vigilante begs an important question: should such frustration, however, be so cruelly highlighted to the rest of the literate public? Perhaps this very public act of shaming could cause those who don’t have the same level of literacy to regress, to admit defeat and to shy away from any efforts they have been making to improve their literacy?

Just because you are one thing, doesn’t mean you should be something else. Being an adult, doesn’t mean you should be brilliant at reading, writing and comprehension. There are many corners of society where stereotyping leads to cries of persecution or disadvantage, yet we are happy to allow those who struggle with basic literacy to be shamed before we know their story and understand the individual, personal reasons why they may not have the same level of literacy as another person.

Perhaps the literate should be more forthcoming in supporting those less literate to improve their skills, rather than applying the ‘stupid’ label to them!

Your writing is yours alone

Whatever your level of literacy, whatever you write becomes a representation of you in much the same way as the words you speak represent your beliefs, opinions, thoughts and feelings. We are all very aware that the way we visually represent ourselves is important in influencing the perceptions of those around us: this is no different with our writing, which is often judged more harshly.

There is an inherent importance in accuracy of writing, however: it is a tool for communication and incorrect communications can have serious consequences in any number of scenarios.

Equally, language is more an art than it is in science. Some might argue that our rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar are just attempts to standardise an artform to make it accessible. Whether you can spell, punctuate and use grammar as per the rules doesn’t really matter if you’re enjoying writing – what matters is how you express yourself, your imagination and your creativity (then proofreaders, like me, step in to help your audience understand your works!).

So what of The Grammar Vigilante? In my humble opinion, he has done us all a favour in highlighting the plight of the English language and stimulating debate about the levels of literacy in our country. But is it enough to keep the debate rolling; to inspire people to write better, perhaps? Let’s see…

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