Mum, How Do You Spell "Self Righteous"?


It’s not just writers Ben Pobjie and Scott Bridges who are up in arms about how best to teach English to kids.

Grandparents around the nation have been cackling with glee at the news that the young’uns will soon be copping an ominously titled "back-to-basics" approach to grammar in schools, thanks to the recently proposed National Curriculum for English, which they no doubt hope will clean up the country’s text messages and fix the price of a pint of milk at one shilling sixpence.

As the blogosphere demonstrates, it’s also a deeply satisfying development for anyone outraged at the dropping of language standards in our community, and all that they are supposed to represent.

(Of course, it’s worth noting that quite a lot of people really love this kind of outrage because it gives them so many opportunities to show off. In countless blogs, such people would be heard right now urging the government "to bravely beat prescriptive grammar into young heads like hot cane into buttock" except that would be splitting the infinitive. However in many of us, such smugness is mixed with the kind of creeping dread you feel when you begin to suspect that the privilege in all your learning is not being privileged by your society anymore.)

In general the blogosphere itself has not been given very high marks for its standards of grammatical rectitude. But it’s a big tent, and there’s a table off in a dark corner of the net piled high with well thumbed editions of Fowler’s and earl grey-stained copies of Strunk and White where a perpetually agitated huddle of grammar bloggers is seated. These people stand ready to provide nerdy kids conjugating their way through primary school with crabby, narky and possibly valuable advice.

This is a good thing. For it’s a time of great uncertainty in the print media, and there are fewer and fewer sub-editors at the broadsheets to maintain the sanctity of the language. (We were briefly excited to hear rumours of the appointment of a certain special someone — spelt "jay-oh-aitch-en-SPACE-aitch-oh-dubbel-yoo-ay-ar-dee — to the Fairfax board, hoping that his famous devotion to the monarchy might extend to protecting the Queen’s English by not sacking editorial staff. Then we remembered his eschewal of Received Pronunciation and general affection for easy sackings and we felt that hope die.)

First stop for a country getting back in touch with its grammatical roots is the Apostrophe Protection Society, a polite site devoted to that oft-misplaced curlicue. It’s a diplomatically smooth introduction to what lies ahead, featuring a simple punctuation recovery program and a non-judgmental tone — "we do not intend any direct criticism of those who have made the mistakes above".

Note, however, that grammar maven Lynn Truss has issued an influential call for the emergence of a militant wing of the APS. When courteous letters to serial abusers of the apostrophe don’t work Truss advises would-be punctuation jihadis "to shin up ladders at dead of night with an apostrophe-shaped stencil and a tin of paint". Offenders are named and shamed at Apostrophe Abuse, Apostrophism and Apostrophe Catastrophes. You get the picture.

Andrew Bolt also gets stuck into apostrophe misuse by teachers unions on his blog. Or should that be "teachers’ unions"? See the comments for a lengthy hair-splitting session. In a manoeuvre that reveals either an inspired ironic consciousness or a regrettable lapse of proof-reading, Bolt brings his own apostro-clanger to the party: "a state school teacher emails his colleague’s".

There’s a grammar blog for pedants of every persuasion. If the wanton frequency of questions improperly begged bugs you, you can read all about it — and buy a mug — at Beg the Question.

On the other hand it might be that you’ve had a gutful of "letter abuse". (You can’t really be sure if that includes you unless you know that letter abuse "is better known as the linguistic phenomenon of intentional misspelling of words and the substitution of incorrect letter usage found in our culture". If that is you, The Perplexikon will stoke that righteous fire you’re feeling.)

There’s also some important work being done over at The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, which sort of "speaks" for itself.

Literally, A Web Log tracks abuse of the word "literally". (But not in the sense that it’s actually out there looking for hoof-prints and sniffing droppings.) It’s recommended reading for sports writers everywhere. These bloggers would, for example, just love this profile of Stephanie Rice in the Courier Mail, which told readers that "now she had consolidated her initial promise the sky was literally the limit". That’s a hell of a high dive. One of our favourites from the site quotes Jerry Falwell, who said, "If you and I do not speak up now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women and children who get in its way".

Facebook is also doing its bit to help, providing ample forums (fora?) in which to wax arcane about such matters as the confusion of "their" with "there" with "they’re". Thus are social networks built.

And grammatical terrorist cells too, apparently. The secret fantasies of countless vigilante grammar crusaders were acted out when Jeff Deck et al formed what they called the Typo Eradication Enhancement League (TEAL) and set off across America to edit every signage error that offended their keen sensibilities. Their mission sparked a huge wave of blogger interest and Jeff Deck became some kind of highbrow folk hero (if that’s possible).

After a series of often tense interactions with people who felt that their signs didn’t need correcting, TEAL got into real trouble for defacing a rare hand-painted sign in Arizona. The TEAL blog was worth reading before, but it’s arguably even better now that it has been reduced to a one-page statement of extreme contrition:

"There are many aspects to the ongoing task of being a responsible American citizen. One aspect in particular is often overlooked; namely, that one should not vandalize or damage signs on the National Parks and public lands. Such actions include but are not limited to fixing spelling mistakes on signs. It is absolutely egotistical for one to think that one can tell others how to spell. In addition, one never knows whether a sign has historic value concealed within it. What appears to be an ordinary sign may in fact be the work of a heroic local artist. Some signs may be irreplaceable and unfixable. One should ask before modifying signs, because altering signs without the permission of the owner is a crime!!"

Clearly being a pedant is not all chit-chat about terminal prepositions and mixed metaphors. There’s more vigilante action over at Grammar Vandal. Those living in fear of humiliation by grammar bloggers can visit Grammar Girl who podcasts "quick and dirty tips" — although her advice follows North American usage and is therefore open to attacks like this one from folks who believe that whole continent is holding the wrong end of the language stick.

All this scrupulousness has been well scrutinised by the behaviourologists at Stuff White People Like:

"If you wish to gain the respect of a white person, it’s probably a good idea that you find an obscure but contentious grammatical question such as the "Oxford comma" and take a firm stance on what you believe is correct. This is seen as more productive and forward-thinking than simply stating your anger at the improper use of "it’s".

"Another important thing to know is that when white people read magazines and books they are always looking for grammar and spelling mistakes. In fact, one of the greatest joys a white person can experience is to catch a grammar mistake in a major publication. Finding one allows a white person to believe that they are better than the writer and the publication since they would have caught the mistake. The more respected the publication, the greater the thrill. If a white person were to catch a mistake in The New Yorker, it would be a sufficient reason for a large party."

Of course all of this is demonstrably true, but where does such insight leave white Australians? Far from making pedants happy, could a return to starchy standards through the National Curriculum actually rob them of a great joy in life? How will well educated people distinguish themselves then?

We don’t know the answer to this, but we hope that will continue to provide its readers with sufficient typographical, orthographic and grammatical errors to send hot flushes of pleasure surging through bile ducts well into the future.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.