Wednesday, 22 October 2008

On "correctness"

My last post was about the importance of correct or conventionally-accepted spelling, grammar and punctuation.

So when DOESN'T it matter? The sort of "correctness" I object to is when somebody rudely corrects somebody else, whether in speech or print. The sort of person who does this is usually completely dogmatic about how things "should" be done, usually because they were taught to do them this way at school. They seem oblivious to the fact that rules of grammar and spelling can gradually change, or that there can be more than one way to do things. They usually have no awareness of the great age of prescriptive grammars in the 18th century, when the "right" way to do things was first set down based on the glories of the Latin language. They do not seem to realise that these rules are simply man-made conventions, which can be changed.

This sort of "correctness" is not aimed at helping the reader or speaker, but at showing off. Certainly you should correct somebody's pronunciation if you know for sure that they are saying a word incorrectly and are about to go out on stage and make a twit of themselves! Otherwise I would say that in ordinary conversation a few slips in pronunciation don't really matter - and certainly shouldn't be rudely corrected by some know-all. And does it matter that someone starts a sentence with "and"? No, not if they wished to use it for emphasis. Is it wise or even sensible to boldly seek out all examples of the split infinitive and blast them with withering scorn? I think not.

My last example of incorrect corrections appear in library books! The reader detects some flaw and writes a correction in the margin. How rude! First, they have defaced the book. Second, they have assumed that other readers are not bright enough to detect this flaw without having it pointed out to them. Third, it seems that even though nobody could possibly know who they are, they have felt obliged to point out that they, the anonymous reader, were aware of this fault! This annoys me much more than the original mistake - if in fact it was one, because such 'omniscient' readers are in fact often wrong ...

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