Seeking perfection

Being a writer and editor/subeditor can be something of a burden when it comes to being a consumer of other people’s work in journalism.

Too often it’s easy to get distracted by an errant apostrophe, Oxford comma or clumsy sentence instead of just sitting back and appreciating what’s been written or said. Who could resist taking a friendly dig at the hapless TV3 journalist who reported a motel had been “exterminated” after a bed bug infestation. Or the former TV presenter appearing on a large billboard spruiking carpets with the priceless “If your thinking about new carpet…”

It’s all good fun, but none of us is immune to editorial stuff-ups. While we can get a good laugh at the expense of our colleagues we all secretly dread the day when we let slip our own clanger.

Some people get very angry about poor standards of written and spoken language while others can be rather mean. For example there is a Facebook page dedicated to picking up errors and unintentional humour on the Stuff website. Needless to say they have plenty of material to work with. My own favourite from recent days was the juxtaposition of these two headlines: “Raw milk market revives faith in nutritious food”, followed closely by “Campylobacter outbreak linked to raw milk”. To be fair to the Fairfax staffers, there must be incredible pressure to keep the Stuff site refreshed with new material, although I do despair at the heavy bias towards lightweight celebrity gossip stories – perhaps ideal fodder for people enjoying a sneaky mini-break from work.

Should we care about standards of writing in the wider domain? Yes and no. 

Those of us who write and edit for a living certainly have a duty to maintain good standards, while keeping an open mind about the evolution of punctuation, grammar and usage. Given the huge volumes of wordage churned out today by journalists, marketers, advertisers and others it’s surprising that their output is not riddled with more errors. But I’m not one for just giving up on certain conventions (not using apostrophes is plurals for example) simply because so many people get it wrong.

Some would argue that there has been a sharp, recent decline in the ability of the younger generation to express themselves accurately and clearly, be it in print or via the spoken word. I don’t think that’s true. If TradeMe had been around 50 years ago, I reckon the mangled English we see in today’s online forums would have been just as bad then as now. But 50 years ago the best written communications technology available to most was a typewriter and a landline. Relatively few people typed and those who did were fairly well trained with a good eye for detail. Since the democratisation of the keyboard in the past 30-40 years we see a much more representative sampling of people’s literacy in the public domain than ever before.

I had a conversation with a primary school teacher about the use of apostrophes. “Oh no!” she said. “We don’t teach those any more. We just tell the kids not to use them at all, because that way they won’t make any mistakes!” That conversation was 20 years ago. Further back, I have family letters dating from over a century ago. They’re littered with punctuation and spelling errors, although as far as I know my granny was a well brought-up and educated young woman. Plus ca change.

For a bit more on why we all get so exercised about grammar there’s this good article on the, er, Stuff website (well, okay, they borrowed it from their brothers and sisters at the Sydney Morning Herald…)


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