I’d like to take a position that runs counter to my own professional interests (and, honestly, the urgings of my soul). We shouldn’t focus too much on “errors” in English.
I, of all people, understand the temptation to point them out. But it’s not helpful. It creates the feeling that English is a minefield of arcane rules, presided over by stuffy old men who get up in arms at the mention of coordinate clauses. This is actually true in many countries, most famously France. (1) But ever since the Norman invasion English has been different. It’s more flexible, more able to incorporate words and structures from other languages. There have always been those in positions of authority who claim that there are clear rules, and that breaking them is some kind of social marker–a sign of poor education, poor intelligence, or both. Often, this was snobbery masquerading as objectivity. A great American writer pushed back against this elitism when he wrote “There’s no such thing as the Queen’s English – the property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company we hold the bulk of the shares!” Do you know who this was? He wrote the “without you have read” sentence in my first post. (2) His point was that the popular usage of a language matters far more than a theoretical ideal.
He was mostly right. Popular usage eventually determines “correctness”. With the advent of the Internet this evolution of usage is more visible and more rapid than ever before. Neologisms quickly become commonplace, and then codified in official sources. “ROFL” (3) is already in the Oxford English Dictionary. I assume it’s only a matter of time until “hangry” is in there as well. I admit this makes me deeply uncomfortable, but on the whole language evolution is both good and inevitable.
But here’s the thing: the snobs are partly right, too. The rules aren’t perfectly objective, and they do change over time, but using bad language can mean creating a bad impression. And this is not due to snobbishness.
The reason language errors matter isn’t because they break some arbitrary grammar cop rule, it’s because they mean you’re failing at the point of language, which is to organize and convey your thoughts to others. And when you use unusual language, you’re placing a burden on your intended audience. You’re effectively saying “It’s up to you to understand me, and I don’t know how to make it easier for you” Sometimes this is OK: person-to-person, or in a casual context. Sometimes it’s excusable: for instance, when there’s a great cultural divide. And of course people always have a right to express themselves in their own words. But in business it’s not smart to put that burden of interpretation on your customers. So my position at the top of this piece is slightly more complicated than it appears – we shouldn’t focus too much on “errors”, but we do need to obsess over the question of whether the style and content of our language conveys what we want it to convey.
Language is an agreement between people. It’s incredibly flexible. But just because it’s flexible doesn’t mean you can do anything you want, nor does it mean that others won’t (or shouldn’t) form their opinions of you based on the language you use.
edit – A colleague reminded me that the French example is by no means unique. I’ve tweaked the post slightly to reflect this and clarify my argument.
(1) Many non-English languages have official organizations tasked with codifying rules for language use. The French example is probably the most famous. If you want to learn more, check out the Académie française – as you might expect, the page is not available in English. From the main search results on Google: “L’Académie française, institution créée en 1635, est chargée de définir la langue française par l’élaboration de son dictionnaire qui fixe l’usage du français.” My rough translation: “The French Academy,” an institution created in 1635, is responsible for developing a standard dictionary that defines the French language and establishes proper French usage.”
(2) Mark Twain (1835-1910)
(3) Also ROTFL – abbreviation for “Rolling On [The] Floor Laughing”