Home > Uncategorized > Do Businesses Actually Care about Grammar?

Do Businesses Actually Care about Grammar?


A bit of a late one today, I’ll admit! Having written a little bit about whether grammar matters, I’d been thinking more the standards business hold themselves to in their promotional/advertising materials, since if ever grammar mattered, then surely it would be in the business realm? But the more I walk around Birmingham (and further afield), the more I realise that businesses don’t actually seem to care that much about how poor grammar and punctuation impact on their public image. In fact, I’ve been almost stunned to silence by the laziness of sign-writers, proof-readers and advertising gurus who don’t check the printed materials that end up in the public domain.

In only a couple of days of actively looking for the kinds of mistakes I would only expect in a poorly written undergraduate essay, I’ve managed to collate a few examples from across Birmingham. If you come across any other examples, it would be great if you could share them.

The first one is from the Jongleurs comedy club in central Birmingham. It’s a bit blurry, but right at the bottom there’s the line Check out the show photo’s. Placing an apostrophe in plural nouns seems to be a common error (the other examples are of the same error), and I see it ALL THE TIME in Birmingham market (e.g. organic potato’s, 5lb for £1), but for it to be in a professional flyer is just poor effort…

The next one is from outside PC World about 10 minutes away from my flat. We had gone to buy a new hoover and it was actually Rebecca who pointed this one out to *me*, not the other way around.

I’m not sure exactly what belongs to the TV (the now?), but in any event, this just doesn’t make sense…

As I said, Birmingham market is chock full of these kinds of errors, but one which leapt out at me was one for the tattooist, and if there’s one place where you don’t want to see punctuation or grammar errors, it’s probably at a tattoo place.

The last one isn’t a grammar error per se, but one that made me laugh nonetheless. In the same shop as the one above, there’s a hairdresser who does eyebrow threading, hair extensions, and most notably, eyelash extensions. The problem was that the sign writer has obviously thought that eyelash (singular) should be pluralised as eyeslash rather than eyelashes

Eyeslashes: the next big thing in cosmetic enhancement?

– The Social Linguist

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. David
    September 10, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    In your last post, you said the following:

    “In such rarified prescriptive circles, no distinction is made between an ‘error’ which is different from the standard form, and an error which impedes mutual communication and meaning. In the world of the prescriptivist, ‘I done it’ is just as wrong/bad/abominable/hang-worthy as ‘I it done’. Such crude lack of distinction will further erode any confidence non-standard speakers of English will have in their respective varieties because they’ll have been brain-washed into thinking their speech is ‘wrong’.”

    Your argument’s in this post seem, to me at least, to float dangerously close to this sort of prescriptivism. None of the signs impede mutual communication and meaning. The “eyeslash” one comes closest, although only in isolation (it is obvious what an “eyeslash” is in if it is followed by “extention” and on a shop of this kind). It’s easy to construct examples where “mistakes” of this kind could lead to misunderstanding but in most “real-life” examples I don’t think this is the case. Obviously, there is a difference here with what you’re arguing above, in that it’s much trickier to maintain that placing an apostrophe in plural nouns is a feature of a dialect, given that we’re talking about written, not spoken, English. The point is that everyone (arguably) can understand these signs.

    I’ve just been in Barcelona for a week, so contrast these signs with the following, from a Catalan menu translated into English:

    Shrimps in the plate(patch), sea fruit salad wipes golf, potatoes and lemon
    Beefsteak of pig a the plate(patch), Fried egg, Salad, crudenesses and chips
    Manchego cheese (cow 1/2 dryness)
    Bomba (Ball of coated with breadcrumbs potato stuffed in the prickly meat)
    Black sausages of Burgos (stuff in the rice and in the onions)

    I’m sure there is a blog out there that posts mistranslations of this kind (all your base are belong to us). The point is that these “errors” do impede meaning (“sea fruit salad wipes golf”? “crudenesses and chips”? “cow 1/2 dryness”?). Of course, their completely understandable, and I was relieved to have an English menu rather than having to rely on badly-remembered GCSE Spanish. Maybe I have a problem with the labelling of signwriters as lazy. Or maybe grammar doesn’t matter if it don’t impede mutual communication and meaning.

  2. David
    September 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    I just re-read that response and think that it could be misconstrued as an attack, not helped by inserting some grammatical errors rather sarcastically. Please don’t interpret it as such! And maybe I should have been a bit more wary given what I wrote my ISM about…!

  3. September 10, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    I think perhaps the distinction between speech and writing is important here, since I do think that standards are quite important in the written domain (of course I would, I’m a lecturer!). Of course, the kinds of errors I pointed out above don’t impede mutual understanding in the same way as perhaps mis-spellings might, but nonetheless, I would think that this is a different kind of prescriptivism from ‘you can’t split infinitives’.

    Just out of curiosity, was your menu really that understandable?? Sea fruit salad golf wipes?? I wonder what culinary delight that is?!

    • David
      September 11, 2011 at 5:38 pm

      Ah, I didn’t mean the menu was understandable (it wasn’t – we ordered something that was meant to be fish, but was in fact mushrooms). What I meant was that the mistranslations were understandable “errors”, given that the bar had, thankfully, gone to the trouble of (at least) attempting to translate their menu for us ignorant Brits.

      Even so, I’m not entirely convinced. Can’t you speak of multiple written Englishes in the same way as multiple spoken Englishes? And if a particular written English diverges from the standard (as in the cases you highlight) without impeding mutual understanding, then does it deserve to be described as “poorly written”, “lazy” or “poor effort”? It just strikes me as problematic to reject prescriptivism when it comes to speech, but embrace it when it comes to writing.

  4. Aaron
    September 11, 2011 at 12:38 am

    You’re clearly misinterpreting the third photo, as tattoos are certainly required to show ID in order to gain entrance.

  5. September 11, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I think your post is a very nice illustration of the frequent internal struggle many (socio)linguists face: on the one hand, we understand why people make ‘errors’, and understand that often they are not errors, but merely non-standard usages, or perhaps even innovations which will eventually become standard through normal processes of language change. On the other, we ourselves have been subject to the same kinds of education that have produced Lynn Truss and her ilk, and sometimes cannot suppress the shudder of revulsion at a misplaced apostrophe or irregularly formed plural. Our attitudes towards language are shaped by our parents, teachers, and friends, and become part of what Bourdieu calls our ‘habitus’, the involuntary behaviours and reactions to events around us. A little education can’t so easily change that.

  6. September 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    I think Johnny’s hit the nail on the head here with the slightly schizophrenic world view many sociolinguists have, and I would totally agree with his point.

    I don’t know why it would be problematic rejecting prescriptivism when it comes to speech and ’embracing’ it when it comes to writing though? They are two different systems (as you intimate) and if different rules exist for both (which to a certain extent is the case), then I feel ok with having two different ‘attitudes’ towards them (for want of a better word).

    I would say that the big thing (and one I haven’t touched on), is that it all comes down to context. If the features I had mentioned occurred in a note on the fridge or an informal e-mail, then I wouldn’t be bothered, but in the public domain (or the education system or something more formal), then yeah, I think that certain standards should be upheld. That’s not to say that I think those errors are ‘worthy of hanging’, but that they should be marked as errors because well, they are, even if they don’t impede mutual understanding. Whether they’re ‘lazy’, ‘poorly written’ or whatever is, I suppose, a matter of opinion, but at the root, they are errors and, I would say, of a different kind of category of error from ‘I done it’.

    And when you (David) said “Of course, [the translations are] completely understandable’, I thought you meant that you got what the menu meant!

  7. David
    September 11, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    The reason I think it’s problematic is because of the argument you make in the following paragraph:

    “If the features I had mentioned occurred in a note on the fridge or an informal e-mail, then I wouldn’t be bothered, but in the public domain (or the education system or something more formal), then yeah, I think that certain standards should be upheld”

    If this argument were directed at a non-standard spoken dialect, as it is by prescriptivists, then I assume you’d disagree. Presumably, that’s because a non-standard spoken dialect is only non-standard because it differs from a socio-historical norm, backed up by the ruling elite. Surely the same can be said of non-standard writing? In this sense, speech and writing aren’t two entirely different systems.

    And suppose there was a sign that rendered “think” as “fink”, or used the phrase “I done it”. If these were written, in the public domain, would they be errors? (Assuming that such “errors” weren’t made on purpose, with the intention or being ironic, or something).

  8. September 11, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Nope, I’d probably say much the same thing. In certain contexts, it’s about appropriacy of use. I would avoid saying something like ‘I done it’ in formal contexts, but would be fine with it in speaking with friends. That’s not being prescriptivist since a prescriptivist wouldn’t recognise gradations like this. For many of them, it’s all or nothing. I’m not forwarding that.

    To answer your question, if ‘fink’ was written in a text message, email, note or something, then that’s cool. If it was in a job application or an educational article, I’d have to pause for thought I’d imagine.

    Surely you wouldn’t go as far to say that ‘standards be damned’ and write whatever we wanted wherever we wanted?

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