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David Bly: People really do care about good English

It was gratifying to see the response to my column last week on the problems of poor spelling. People care. There’s hope for literacy. As I finished that column, I cringed a bit.

It was gratifying to see the response to my column last week on the problems of poor spelling. People care. There’s hope for literacy.

As I finished that column, I cringed a bit. Writing about spelling and grammar invites close scrutiny and presents the potential for considerable embarrassment. How would it be to write such a column and have someone discover in it a misspelled word or a lapse in grammar?

One reader wondered if I had erred in my spelling of resumé, suggesting it should be résumé. He conceded the point when I told him my spelling conformed to the Oxford Dictionary, but that’s still an issue open to debate.

Other readers discovered a definite error in a Times Colonist article the next day that said Canadians are inclined to “horde” pennies.

“I was bemused to read about the ‘hordes’ of pennies that Canadians have been hoarding,” wrote Jill Chamberlain. “Perhaps we will find them swarming like the Mongol armies out of our piggy banks, jars and wallets in an effort to get back into circulation before it’s too late.”

Ouch. It’s easy to do — the fingers fly over the keyboard, the deadline approaches and the brain skips a synapse. And spell-checking doesn’t recognize the difference between “horde” and “hoard.”

It’s a reminder to those of us in the word business to slow down and take a second look.

Several readers decried the wholesale abuse of the apostrophe, including one who spelled it “apostrophy.” (He was right on the mark otherwise.)

Another reader complained that newspapers are at fault in the decline of language, that every page is “loaded with poor english.”

There’s always room for improvement, but that reader was exaggerating, from my perspective. And yet, it’s an exaggeration I understand — one misspelling, one incorrect word, one grammatical slip can create a poor impression for a whole page.

This page, for example, contains 2,351 words. If it contains one typographical or grammatical error, it is still 99.957464909 per cent correct, according to my desktop calculator (not to put too fine a point on it). That’s a gold-star score for any student, but in the newspaper business, it’s the one wrong word that gets the attention. And so it should.

A language purist can find plenty to criticize in a newspaper, but the newspaper’s job is to communicate clearly. Sometimes that means using the language informally; sometimes it means breaking the rules.

Sylvia Bowen wrote of her grammar-school experiences, noting that using “and” or “but” to begin a sentence was an unforgivable error.

But I disagree. Rules can be broken effectively to add emphasis or create a certain rhythm. The same with incomplete sentences. The important part is to know that you are breaking the rules and why, and you should be prepared to take the consequences. The problems occur when people break the rules because they don’t know the rules, and communication suffers. That’s where I stand firmly with Sylvia. Because we sometimes break the rules doesn’t mean the rules shouldn’t exist.

Speaking of communication, I was covering a trial where the judge asked the prosecutor a question.

“I am not privy to that information, Your Honour,” answered the lawyer.

Absolutely correct grammar, but fuzzy communication, I thought. “Hell if I know” would have been clearer.

Not necessarily, said a lawyer friend when I told him of the incident, teasing him about his tribe’s use of hundred-dollar words when 50-cent ones would do.

“The prosecutor probably knew, but wasn’t supposed to know,” said my friend. “He and the judge were communicating perfectly.”

Lesson learned — the language should fit the circumstances.

English is a living, evolving language, and we should allow it to grow and change, but that doesn’t mean letting it deterioriate.

Thanks to all those who cared enough to write about language and spelling, who champion the proper and effective use of English. Enjoyable letters all, but the best, without doubt, was written by an inmate at the William Head Institution. Check it out on Friday’s letters page.