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Monday, 10 September, 2001, 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK
Why poor grammar ain't so bad
Even graduates of France's top university have been offered help writing official letters. But is perfect grammar really that important asks BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley?

It seems even attending a world class university cannot adequately equip modern graduates with the skills required to pen a formal letter.

The Sorbonne in Paris has decided a two-year course in letter writing is required to instruct students in the art of corresponding with officialdom.

Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin
"Don't you have spell checkers in London, Tony?"
It is not only the notoriously precise French who are horrified by the inability of some citizens to adhere to the rules of grammar. On this side of the Channel there are many who grumble that standards of formal English just ain't what they used to be.

The conventions of grammar and punctuation do seem to be falling victim to a new informality in our written communications. At the spearhead of this onslaught is e-mail.

Two-thirds of those aged 18-24 admit to being more concerned about the content than the grammatical correctness of their electronic missives.

Bad spelling btw :(

Even one in four older e-mailers say they don't worry about grammar when tapping out a message.

Oddly, the majority of those questioned in this MSN survey said they were annoyed by errors in e-mail they receive.

Tolerance for mistakes reaches an even lower ebb when words are set to paper.

Albert Einstein
"I r a genius"
This year, a Royal Mail survey of companies showed poorly-written letters and literature were a major turn off.

Using such errors as an indicator of their wider professionalism (or rather lack of), bosses said they would not do business with a firm that couldn't weed out grammatical mistakes.

Unbelievably, even overcharging was seen as a less serious business-loser than missing an apostrophe. The survey calculated dodgy writing skills could be costing offending firms 2bn in lost contracts.

It's not only managers who get irritated about such mistakes. Earlier this year Wigan MP Neil Turner returned a letter to a constituent having added his own handwritten corrections of the correspondent's mistakes.

Red ink brigade

"Not a sentence", "present, not past tense", "we only have 1 Labour Party, should be Party's", he wrote in red ink.

The man he was hectoring, psychiatric nurse Stephen Halsall, turned out to be dyslexic.

Man chewing a pen
"The lid's rusted on again"
Linguistics expert Dr Joan Beal says the highlighting of errors is often used as a way to undermine a writer's otherwise valid argument.

"When working people were trying to get the vote in the 18th century, the Commons rejected petitions saying the language used in them was improper."

The same snootiness can also be seen in internet chatrooms. Even typing errors are eagerly leaped upon as an excuse to deride fellow users, says Dr Beal.

Such churlishness persists even when errors are made in the pursuit of worthy goals.

Write right

The Washington DC schools board was made a laughing stock by a $40,000 poster campaign to combat truancy.

"DC Public Schools Wants You!!! Go To Class - It' a Blast!!!" read signs on the city's buses.

Fear of being ridiculed has perhaps prompted many people to avoid such activities as letter writing altogether.

President Bush
"What's this paper with squiggles on it you sent me?"
Linguistically-challenged President Bush has opted to give e-mail a miss, citing security worries. "I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass."

Dr Beal says e-mail is different to other traditional written messages since it has developed to mimic oral communication.

The Royal Mail has noticed this trend. On its "Pen to paper" webpage, the postal service advises that the best way to compose a letter is to "write from the heart, the way that you would say it".

Junk mail

In today's classless, empowered, consumer-orientated society, the Royal Mail also maintains there is no need to go in for forelock tugging when writing to your bank manager, councillor or boss.

"Above all, write the way you think and your directness and personality will communicate to the reader."

For those still keen to eradicate all errors for their letters, modern technology has put several aids at your disposal.

Helen Adams from Big Brother
"I can't write with people watching"
There are even telephone hotlines to supplement your computer's spell checker. Dr Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton operates just such a service from the University of Texas at Austin.

Though happy to settle disputes over American English (which fuels just as many arguments as its British equivalent), even Dr Piedmont-Marton wonders whether some people really take bad grammar too seriously.

''When they have spent hours arguing over whether it is correct to say, 'It is I' or 'It is me,' you have to wonder if they shouldn't be exploring something else about their relationship.''

See also:

22 Mar 01 | Science/Nature
22 Jun 00 | UK
20 Oct 00 | UK
19 Mar 01 | Americas
19 Jul 01 | UK
11 Jan 01 | Europe
Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.


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