Steve Jenner: Tense situation at grammar frontline

Should Princes Street's signs be altered? Picture: Joey Kelly
Should Princes Street's signs be altered? Picture: Joey Kelly
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The correct use of grammar? Who cares? This seems to be a typical comment in response to recent media pieces related to the subject.

Well, the short answer is some people do – and some people don’t. But perhaps a more useful question is: “Does it matter?”

The Plain English Campaign would argue that it does.

True, in a world where death and violence are sadly commonplace and our economy continues to bump along the bottom, some might say that there are greater priorities, that an insistence on correct language use is just pedantic nonsense.

As media spokesperson for Plain English Campaign I have long since lost count of the times when I’ve been “on the sofa” with various academics who usually begin their arguments by reminding us that language evolves. It changes.

The new language environments of text, e-mails, twitter etc encourage all sorts of changes to our language. And indeed, these developments often bring with them a new vocabulary and each person is left with a stark linguistic choice: evolve or die.

Well, yes. And no. The recent battles over the honour of the apostrophe are a case in point. One council in England recently decided to do away with apostrophes on street signs. The most worrying aspect for Campaign members was the council’s insistence they’d done this to prevent misunderstandings and avoid confusion.

Whoops.

The rules of grammar are basically a set of agreed conventions the vast majority of us have decided, either through learning or experience or habit, to accept. Surely the most certain way to spread confusion is to selectively ignore those conventions that appear to be inconvenient, for whatever reason there may be. If we, as a society, decide it is acceptable to do this, you are on the path to a breakdown in the understanding of those conventions helping us to understand each other and the world we live in.

And let’s not pretend this is unimportant: try telling that to the tenant facing eviction because they do not understand the terms of their tenancy; the elderly person, living alone, who does not know what to do faced with new instructions on their prescription drugs; the person facing a benefits system which is so difficult to understand they fail to claim what they are entitled to.

We also have to ask ourselves about the signals we are sending to younger members of the community. How can we expect school students to take these rules seriously if their environment gives them a different message? Anyone for Waterstones?

The recent question mark over Princes Street’s apostrophe, if such a thing can exist, is an interesting one, though.

The general belief seems to be that these signs were made originally in the early nineteenth century. So it seems the people of Edinburgh have an interesting choice to make; do they accept this as an interesting historical linguistic abnormality; or do they decide to give the street of the Prince the original meaning back, so the 
history and heritage of the place is underlined? And, of course, so generations of English teachers don’t have to qualify their lessons with a world-famous local exception.

One thing must surely be true, though; given the length of time this sign has been like this the decision to change it or keep it as it is, should belong to the people of Edinburgh.

Steve Jenner is media spokesperson for the Plain English Campaign, 
www.plainenglishcampaign.co.uk