We all think we’d know bad english if we saw it, right? Well, it’s not as easy as you’d think. The quality of english depends on two things; style and mechanics. In other words, there’s a genuine difference between bad English and bad grammar. But first, we need to know what a sentence is and does. HW Glower roughly says that a sentence might be:
- A group of words completing a thought 💭
- A cluster of words with an intelligible purpose 💡
- A line of words with a subject, predicate, object and tense 👍🏻
- A combination of words arranged to make sense 🔑
Grammar isn’t just about knowing the difference between an adverb and verb, or even how to use a semicolon. It’s about the effect that certain words create and their implied meanings.
Could we technically have bad English with correct grammar? Or even good English with bad grammar. Okay, first we need to identify three things: what it is that’s wrong, why it’s wrong and could it be better? Here we have three examples which will be deconstructed and explained:
“Tearing down the motorway at 80mph, the fog suddenly enveloped the car, forcing me to pull over”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen fog travelling at 80mph! Because this sentence is a sentence fragment, it creates ambiguity as to what is travelling at 80mph. It’s clearly not possible for fog to travel, so we are forced to assume that it is the car that is travelling at such a speed. If the sentence had “As I was tearing down” beforehand, the sentence would make perfect sense”
“The black diamond is one of the most unique in the world”
Whoever has the nerve to write this clearly doesn’t know the meaning of unique. “Unique” means “one of a kind”, so to say it is one of the most unique is a slap in the face. But still, it’s not necessarily an obvious error. Some may even say that it’s a matter of style over grammar.
“After receiving criticism, Apple defended themselves”
This is a tricky example, especially thanks to gender-neutrality. Unless talking about a specific person, the preferred term is it. This is because “they” is normally plural, and it is used for a genderless, inanimate object. Therefore “the person may defend themself” is correct because it singular. Unfortunately, themself over themselves is not widely accepted, in spite of the logic. This should say, “Apple defended itself”, since Apple is treated as a singular unit. This means that no one specific person in the company is being mentioned, implying that Apple’s defense was made as a collective decision.
All of the above examples require serious thought. Because there are no spelling mistakes or wrong words (“your” confused with “you’re”), these mistakes are initially quite hard to spot. In fact, sometimes it’s not even a mistake, but rather a lack of clarity or bad phrasing. In other words, style and tone also play their parts.
Deliberately bad English:
Not all poor English is unintentional, and only the Queen’s English in Britain is regarded as “proper”. Slang, such as Cockney, is usually either colloquial or a shortened form of English. For others, it’s just an evolution of the English language (I am in no way suggesting that you start speaking like a gangster or over-using text speak).
“Wot r u up 2?”
Ah, text speak. The way of shortening words so that they sound cool. Thankfully, most people have grown out of text speak, and have left it behind in the noughties.
“Yo better scat”
This particular example is gangster speak, which is more common in the U.S. Rap, hip hop and street dancing may have made this type of talking more common in other countries, however. The British equivalent is Chav speak, mainly in the North of England (Manchester, Sunderland, Newcastle, etc), East London and Essex.
Autocorrect: the pros and cons
Autocorrect: the notorious tool that we blame for our blunders. Because of the letters being so close to each other on the keyboard, coupled with the phone being too slow to type several letters, we often get wurds lik ths. Autocorrect is very good at spelling words; for instance, it can pick out correct spelling and punctuation for the text. However, it lacks the ability to put the word into the context of its sentence. This would explain why so many autocorrect fails exist on the Internet. Be wary of spellcheckers too; they cannot apply the rules of grammar to a specific sentence. Nor can they tell whether it is best to use the active or passive voice.
“I coudnt go to the class today due to illness”
Apart from a sloppy spelling mistake, this sentence makes sense. Couldn’t is missing an apostrophe, which is the main error in this sentence. Some grammar nerds might take it further by saying that this sentence appears as an incomplete thought, because this sentence doesn’t make much sense in its own.
“You is requested to be in the gallery at noon”
The mistake here is a simple confusion between “is” and “are”. We can see that this imperative sentence is instructing the “you” to be in a specific time and place. However, the sentence gives clear instructions and conveys useful information.
“It effected Sally by giving her stomach ache.”
There are two things wrong with this sentence. First, this is a sentence fragment, so we don’t know what “this” is. And second, “effected” is supposed to be “affected”.
10 Things you should know about grammar ✒️:
- Commas and full stops were originally supposed to reflect natural pauses in speech. (However, technology has changed how we use commas).
- In poetry and song lyrics, harmony sometimes overrides grammar. That is, when Shakespeare wrote “to be or not to be, that is the question”, he was thinking of how the lines would flow and the harmony between the rhyme scheme and the syllables.
- Sometimes, word order affects meaning. So whilst, “you see very few sign posts wandering around Wales” is confusing, the sentence “Wandering around Wales, you see very few sign posts”
- Don’t go overboard with adjectives; it’s the grammatical equivalent to adding too many accessories on a bag or having a room with clashing colours. They’re a strong spice, so use them sparingly.
- Don’t switch between using letters and numbers. It should look like this: 1874, four apples.
- Passive verbs work better in past tense: “John was sacked by the company”, because it’s already happened. I wouldn’t advise making inanimate objects active either.
- Beware autocorrect! Always use a dictionary if you’re not sure how to spell a word.
- Sentence fragments are sentences that place a sentence out of context, thus rendering it incomplete.
- Square brackets are for editorial comments, round brackets are for thoughts and * is for a side-note or P.S.
- A wide vocabulary is always a good thing! It demonstrates diction, creativity and precision.
A few notes on style
Don’t use jargon out of its correct context. That is, please don’t explain microbiology if your intended audience knows nothing about it.
Tautology means unnecessary words in a sentence, due to saying the same thing twice. It’s not the same as repetition.
Remember when I said vocabulary was important? Well , this is a good time! Try not to add “ness” to a word. This trap seems particularly common with adjectives. For instance, “amazingness” is just dreadful to look at.
Being vague, caused by long winded sentences, is committing the sin of circumlocution. Circumlocution is related to witter, which is using obscure words. waffle, which is wandering off topic for a long period of time.
Tone can easily indicate emotions or mood in a sentence better than the exclamation mark. If you’re writing to your boss to complain, you don’t want to sound apologetic. The choice of verbs, adjectives, adverbs and imperative phrases are usually used to convey the underlying message in writing.
Person is important in writing. Most writing uses third person, unless you are directly addressing someone. Second person is usually deemed too vague and personal. However, if you send an email or letter about a meeting on Tuesday at 5pm, second person would be appropriate. Second is also fine for questionnaires.
Originality is essential, but creativity isn’t. Poetic, eloquent language is usually unnecessary, and similies can be used if they are simple. Flowery language works well for titles, posters, flyers, invite and menus. But stick to plain English for reports, notes, emails and instructions.
Use bold or italics to stress something. Not exclamation marks! OR CAPITALS. Bold is used to emphasize a key word or phrase in a paragraph or sentence. Italics are used to stress the sound of a word (I didn’t say you broke the window).