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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 13:47 GMT
Standing up for proper language
Catherine Poole
In this week's reader's article, full-time mother Catherine Poole, from Dunfermline, talks about the bad grammar that makes her cringe. To send us your views on this topic, see below.


I was recently leaving my local branch of a well-known supermarket and chanced upon a useful seasonal feature, a box where customers can deposit Christmas cards for recycling.

Shop sign misc
Simple shop signs can prove a blood-boiling sight

However, this was not what caught my eye. A sign attached to the relevant box helpfully pointed out that this box was for "Card's only. No plastic bag's, thanks".

I winced and sighed loudly, but I also left the shop, slightly bothered that I didn't have the gumption to say something to the customer service desk.

I think I was afraid to receive a similar sigh and perhaps an accusation of being pedantic. In these days of quick fire text messaging and e-mails, does grammar really not mean anything anymore?

I would hope this is not the case, but sadly, this is only one of many occurrences of poor usage of grammar I see on a daily basis these days, in particular, the abuse of the apostrophe.

Their use in a plural is the most common offender, and although the example above was clearly not an "official" sign, I have seen several cases recently which are, one of the biggest offenders being in a major high street store, advertising "Kid's birthday cards".

I am one of those lonely souls who insist on proper sentence structure even in a text message

Which one lucky kid would be getting all the cards, I wondered?

I have to admit I am one of those lonely souls who insist on proper sentence structure even in a text message, so it comes as no surprise to my friends and relations when I begin another rant about this issue.

I know I am not alone; one search on Google (UK sites only!) for "apostrophes" comes up with 101,000 articles, some of which, I am sad to note, belong to university websites providing basic grammar tuition for students.

This would seem to indicate that many of those starting higher education did not benefit from the basics while they were still at school.

James dilemma

One personal quandary rests in the expression of the possessive of my husband's name, James. I believe that both James' and James's might be correct, but a lot of websites I have looked at only favour the former.

However, I happen to know there is a famous building in London called St James's Palace! I think I am correct in saying both are right - answers on a postcard please!

Incidentally, since beginning this article, I noticed that the sign on the recycling box has been changed. Looks like someone made a stand!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not endorsed by the BBC.

This is a selection of the emails we received in response to Catherine's article.

Bad grammar and poor education are part and parcel of today's Scotland, as an employer I am horrified at how many adults, young and old alike are unable to fill out even the simplest of application forms. I suggest Ms Poole, as opposed to casting down on those less educated, redirect her energies in a more positive direction by perhaps volunteering to help these less literate, a particular issue in her home community of Fife!
Jazz, Edinburgh

The one that I simply detest is the use of "mines" in Scotland; for example, someone pointing to a pair of shoes and saying "they're mines." Nooooo ..... "mines" are big holes in the ground, normally used for extracting coal!
Liam, Inverkip

Catherine needs to get out a bit more. If that's all she has to worry about in life then she's one very lucky lady. Shop workers aren't the highest paid staff and often not the best educated.
Brian, London

When considering the use of 'correct English' you should think about who decides what 'correct' is, on what basis and for what reason. In the UK there┐s no national academy responsible for deciding such issues and therefore English is a personal resource. Here in France, there┐s an academy and it may be more of a social convention than a personal resource. Surely part of the richness offered by English, and a certain amount of its popularity as a lingua franca, in comparison with French, comes about by its status as a personal resource and it's great diversity.
Brian, France

Pet hate - the word "positivity". Did it exist pre-Spice Girls or are -ivities breeding?
Christine, Glasgow

Is it really that important? Would you come down so hard on someone with dyslexia who made a spelling error? So long as people can understand what the sign means I'm happy to let simple mistakes pass. The sign in question was obviously made by someone trying to do a good turn and aid the recycling process, shame if they were put off trying to help again because of someone with too much time on thier hands.
Kim, Edinburgh

Catherine is quite right. I am staggered by the amount of similar signs I see in shops and in advertising by large companies who presumably spend large amounts to have their copy checked. I think the BBC are also frequent offenders: less instead of fewer, it's instead of its etc. Alas, I fear the battle has already been lost.
Lesley, Edinburgh

How about BURN'S NIGHT, which I saw advertised in printed advertisements on the windows of a bar in Edinburgh's West End last week?
Mark, Edinburgh

Grammar is one thing, my pet hate is the way that newsreaders say seketry when they mean secretary.
Harry Wragg, Glasgow, UK

The sentiment of the article is spot on .. but sadly we're now in a society that is readily accepting declining standard everywhere. In agreement with SP in Perth, what can we expect when it's all around? Even our road signs promote text language "R U 2 Close" .. I'm sorry, I don't understand, that is simply 2 letters, a number and a word .. not a road sign!
Stephen, Glasgow

Teachers who themselves 'benefitted' from a 1980s education were allowed to get away with poor spelling and grammar while at school. These same teachers are now teaching our kids the same mistakes. Lucky oldies who escaped the comprehensive school nightmare will now have to correct our kids' spelling as the teachers can't or won't.
Steve, Gloucester

The use of the apostrophe isn't an question of grammar, but of punctuation. Although I'm generally sympathetic to Catherine Poole's views, I find it surprising that a person of such views doesn't know the difference between the two.
Colin Wilson, Aberdeen, Scotland

There seems to be an increase in the pervasiveness of the belief that "it'll do" equates to "good enough". Sadly, this is some way short of "correct". Appropriate use of English allows the reader to correctly parse the sentence with reduced effort. Abuse of grammatical rules, coupled with (usually phonetic) abbreviations all increase the parse effort for the reader. How arrogant of the writer to expect their reader to put in above-average effort to read their missive! Being correct is always better than being wrong, no matter how small the issue. And if someone wishes to write something to me, but cannot be bothered to do it completely and correctly, it makes me wonder whether I can be bothered to read and/or action their message. PS: As a "Giles", thinks belonging to me are "Giles's".
Giles Guthrie, Edinburgh

Proud to be a pendantic member of the grammar police - let's keep up the pressure. And, while we're at it - when did 'disrespect' and 'finesse' become verbs?
Barney, Sweden

I agree completely with Catherine and disagree with John in Chelmsford. Yes, the English language changes all the time, otherwise we'd still be talking about omnibuses and perambulators, but incorrect grammar and punctuation is never a feature of a language progressing over the centuries. Punctuation brings the written word to life.
Jackie Hogarty, Eversley, Hampshire

Does anyone notice a startling similarity between this article and a certain book on the correct use of punctuation by Lynne Truss? Anyway, I was at work the other day and the boss pointed out that I was ┐speeding through my work┐. I felt it important to point out to her that I had been working quickly and that the word speeding would imply that I was doing my work at a speed faster than I was allowed. Ridiculous pedantry, but it amused me for about two seconds!
Gregg, London, England

Sadly, as a civil servant, I have to say that the government is itself responsible for the use of the plural when referring to it. A few years back we received guidance on the style that the government wished to become standard amongst its employees: it specified that "The Government" should be referred to in the plural. So much for "Education, Education, Education"!
Tom Tumilty, Lenzie

Take it Catherine has too many worries! My daughter has had two operations at Yorkhill Hospital in a recent weeks. The kids hospital or is it kid's hospital. I reckon parents in a similar situation would not give two hoots.
Stephen, Glasgow

Even more regretably Catherine talks about "the apostrophe" and then says "their use". Puh-lease.
Jon, Ipswich

May I suggest that when Catherine gives examples of apostrophes being wrongly used, what she is really bemoaning is bad punctuation, rather than bad grammar? I don't see why the card recycling notice is not 'official', but the one in the card shop is, but I do take her point. It's important that those of us who appreciate the importance of appropriate punctuation and good grammar make a stand. We shouldn't feel we're being busybodies, or feel any sense of shame that we compose our text messages and e-mails in sentences with all the words written in full. Some interesting debates on punctuation and the English language in general take place at the Apostrophe Protection Society's website.
Sheena, Halifax

Try addressing your own obsessiveness, and let other people communicate in ways that they want to.
Colin, Edinburgh

Well done Catherine! I am sole defender of correct usage of the apostrophe in my office. It is a heavy burden to bear! Other unforgivable mistakes I often see are "comprised of", "none are" and "less than" instead of "fewer than".
Angus Anderson, Aberdeen

I agree with Catherine Poole. I am a technical author and cringe when I see examples of bad grammar, misuse of apostrophes, and that other annoying habit of 'izing' nouns, e.g. projectized.
Charles White, Ross-shire

With all the things that are happening around the world today, who really cares apart from people who don't have a life?
Mark, Swindon

The person who mentioned mistakes with "less" and "fewer" was quite right. the grammatical explanation is that "less" is used with uncountable nouns, i.e. things you can't count, like sugar, butter, flour etc and "fewer" with countable noun, such as chairs, tables, boys etc.
Patricia, Spain

Catherine herself has a serious error in grammar in her article. This is usually described as 'Gates Gaff' because it was introduced by the Microsoft spell check. The mistake is to use a comma before every 'and' and 'but'.
Alex M, Harrogate

As I was teaching a group of students the basics of television scheduling I was treated to the observation that one programme in particular was "pure dead early but"; this puts it firmly in touching distance of the previous winner which was a small boy who asked me and my film crew "hey mister gonnae camera me"...
Mike, East Lothian

There is a difference between grammar and punctuation. Catherine doesn't seem to be aware of this. Still, we all make mistakes. Despite being guilty of cringing at obvious errors in punctuation and grammar, I'm inclined to suggest that people relax and lose their snobbish attitude to the way in which others communicate. As for the wee boy saying "gonnae camera me" - that's just a perfect example of creative language use! People, please, relax!
Jan, Glasgow

Bad grammar grates with me. "I done that", misuse of apostrophes etc. However, the point of language is to communicate meaning. The supermarket notice served its purpose and although it annoys, it communicates its meaning. What is a lot worse than grammatical errors is the lack of numeracy amongst even the literate population. Time and again you get stupid errors in the media, a simple example being : 'The Lib Dems got 15% of the vote last time and 18% this time, a 3% increase'. Arghh! It's a 20% increase in their vote!!! If language communicates the meaning then it serves its purpose, grammatically correct or not. Calling a 20% increase 3% is a downright lie.
Angus Macdonald, Glasgow

I agree with Catherine. There are (and not there's) so many individuals that should stop using excuses and telling us that they did not study English grammar at school. Get out there and buy a grammar book instead of waisting your life away watching pointless soap operas or texting messages for fun. Learning is for life. Got it?
Salvatore Tomasino, Edinburgh

Luke from Edinburgh, you're talking absolute rubbish - Catherine's use of commas is perfectly judged throughout. And as for Sarah (again from Edinburgh: interesting...) - I'm not sure any of us want the kind of life you seem happy with!
Graeme Bell, France

Am I the only one who finds it funny that in commenting on the misuse of the apostrophe, some people have misspelt the word grammar? There is no 'e', check your dictionaries!
Suzanne , Paris, France

i wasnt aware that 2many txt msgs cood srsly dmge ur gramr
John, Glasgow

My pet hate is the use of "less" when it should be "fewer". Even TV news readers fall for this one. I was taught that it is: Less for quantity, fewer for numbers e.g. "less people have voted" is wrong. It should be "fewer people have voted". Watch the TV news for the next example. You will not have to wait long!
Keith, East Lothian

Don't feel too lonely, Catherine. I am a former journalist and now, as a Public Relations professional, find myself fighting a losing battle on the grammar front. I believe that communication/understanding is more important than pedantry but structure is essential to enable that understanding. Of course the BBC itself is a major cause of this very basic structure being undermined. I repeatedly insist our organisation is referred to in the singular, but every day we hear R4's Today or Good Morning Scotland saying "the government are.." or "the Scottish Executive have...". Hard to argue the point effectively in the face of such persistent editorial slackness!
SP, Perthshire

Editor's note: We on the BBC Scotland news website insist on the use of the singular>

Grammar, spelling and syntax havealways changed over time, so there is no such thing as 'wrong' grammar, syntax and spelling rather it is merely that which some do not support. Without change we'd all be speaking Old English which is a language which now takes years to learn. If the message is clear, does it matter?
John, Chelmsford

I was in the very same supermarket and did point out the error to the staff on the customer services desk. I pointed out the mistake and said that the sign looked childish. She said, 'Oh, that's because someone was caught putting plastic bags into the container and we only want cards' and walked away. I had to call her back and pointed out that it wasn't the content of the message that was wrong, it was the grammar. She still didn't see it and I had to explain it to her three times before she giggled and walked away from me. It took another full week before the sign was changed.
Elana, Dunfermline

I agree with Laura I rarely use text speak as it annoys me. However it does remind me of a time a friend of mine wrote an essay in university entirely in text speak, needless to say he failed!
Ian , Greenock

I didn't see one comma too many in Catherine's article. She could have used fewer, and depended on the reader to supply the pauses, as I could have done in this sentence; but she did not over-use them. IM(H)O!
Edward, Zurich

Catherine. I'm fully supportive. I detest seeing all those misplaces apostrophes etc. I am an anglophile and I am against English changing (much) because of the new revolutionary, space-saving, and time-saving (for those writing, but not for those not understanding)text-like way of writing (even on post-it notes!). It's an eyesore to see those badly spelled signs!
Christina, Edinburgh

I think it is important. I have to admit that I have been a offender of bad grammar in past. My girlfriend goes mad about it, so I'm becoming more aware of my mistakes now.
Kevin, Dunfermline

I think I heard once that you write "James' car" if you pronounce it "James car," and "James's car" if you pronounce it "Jamesies car." Unfortunately, I prefer the former spelling and the latter pronunciation.
Alex Cook, Edinburgh

Get a life :-)
Sarah, Edinburgh

I recently asked a friend who has a degree in HR to look over a CV I was sending out. She returned it, and had made one change...."I saw the opportunity" had been changed to "I seen the opportunity". It's bad enough that she speaks that way, but to alter correct grammar to that?!
Beth, Glasgow

I heartily agree with Catherine - I too wince when I see signs outside florists' shops advertising lily's at 99p a bunch! It seems that many people don't understand about how to make singular words plural and then somehow think that 's will do! Not to mention the confusion about when is the correct place to use an apostrophe. I'm with you Catherine - it's time we stood up for a correctly placed apostrophe.
Linda Walker, Glasgow

I agree. My eight year old's homework from school often has grammar and spelling mistakes. The homework has been written by her teacher! How can you win? PS. Looks like someone made a stand? It is funny how the written word is changing and we don't even notice it!
Bren, Dundee

Regrettably, Catherine, like so many people today, has the habit, of, over, using, commas.
Luke, Edinburgh

As a journalist, I am as horrified as Catherine by a whole range of popular grammatical errors ranging from the use of 'they' when referring to a government or a company (should be singular) to the unhealthy proliferation of commas. Still, we shouldn't get too hung up on this. The importance of correct grammar is for clarity's sake. Providing that the message is understood, there's no point in pedantry. That kid who'll get all those birthday cards is a good example of how misuse of an apostrophe muddles meaning.
Maggie Stanfield, Edinburgh

I couldn't agree more. It costs me twice as much to send a grammatically correct text message, but I can't bear to slip into "text-speak". And bad spelling and grammar on signs makes me cringe.
Laura, Bath

It amuses my students that I, as a computing teacher, insist on correct grammar and spelling. I point out to them that a) they need to communicate with the 'real world' and b) that computers are extremely pedantic and cannot guess what you are typing in, you have to get it correct!
Megan, Cheshire

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