Leader: The way to infinitives and beyond

August 12, 2010

Why is it always only the young, who are still learning, who are taken to task over poor spelling and grammar?

"When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it stays split," the writer Raymond Chandler once said; William Shatner would no doubt concur. But whatever one's thoughts on the subject, at least Chandler was familiar with the rule that he was so confidently breaking.

Last week, Simon Heffer, associate editor of The Daily Telegraph, berated the newspaper's journalists in an email that went viral for the grammatical and spelling errors it detailed, ones that would be worthy of our student howlers competition. He highlighted grammatical mistakes such as "us single ladies" and using "different to" instead of "different from", and the use of homophones such as "luck of the drawer", "through up", "dragging their heals" and "slammed on the breaks" (one slip that Mr Heffer overlooked was a recent headline referring to the Large "Hardon" Collider).

What he did not point out (and I do this at the peril of inviting the pedants to scour my own magazine) was that one reason why so many mistakes now creep in to newspapers and magazines is that in the face of falling sales and shrinking profits, the first staff to go are the sub-editors, copy-editors and fact-checkers. Writers have spellchecks on their computers, the logic goes, so sub-editors, who add little more than the odd headline, are superfluous.

Such thinking is a mistake that has repercussions far beyond the bottom line. Imagine a football manager told to reduce running costs responding by getting rid of not only the goalkeeper but also the defenders. Mistakes happen, especially when people are under pressure, and no writer is infallible.

Does this matter to those who work in education? Well yes, and quite a lot. There are many elements and areas that contribute to learning. Schools and universities are vital sources. There are also books, newspapers, magazines and, of course, the internet, where rumour, gossip and innuendo rub shoulders with facts (at Drexel University in Philadelphia, first-year students are assigned a personal librarian to guide them through the quagmire).

Consistency is essential in learning; without it, confusion reigns. Wikipedia, where anyone can be an editor, regularly suffers "edit wars". Among the "lamest" listed by the website http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/ are the entry for Jesus, where 21,864 people have tussled over whether to use "BC" and "AD" or "BCE" and "CE"; and the one for "feces", where 5,224 people have argued over whether the page should show a picture of human excrement.

In the wider cultural conversation, spelling and grammar seem to matter only when they can be used as a stick with which to beat educators. They seem to trouble neither the producers of nor audiences for the advertising and merchandising that surround us - consider the steady advance of the grocer's apostrophe. When such a large section of society does not appear to value the basics, why should anyone else, especially the impressionable young?

And yet we are quick to demonise those who are still learning, but reluctant to rail against those who should know better. The responsibility for education should not fall solely to teachers and lecturers - everyone must share in the task of weaving it into the fabric of society.

So in the coming weeks, when students and educators once again see their best efforts denigrated in the media, perhaps they should tell them boldly where to go.


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