If you had seen the announcement of the Idler Academy's Bad Grammar Awards in Britain, you could have predicted what would turn up: the less/fewer distinction, it's/its, homonym confusions, errant apostrophes. The same trivial items that crop up regularly on Internet lists of grammar errors.
And lo, you would have displayed the gift of prophecy. Here the Telegraph publishes a shortlist of the prime offenders.
Even if you prefer to understand grammar in the broad, inclusive, popular sense, this simple-minded preoccupation with spelling and punctuation must be dispiriting.
At least the Guardian thought so, publishing an article by Harry Ritchie on the awards, "The Bad Grammar Awards are prize stupidity." (Props to the Guardian for publishing the article, even though one of the Bad Grammar judges, Hadley Freeman, is a Guardian journalist.)
I would have given the whole thing a pass as merely a British affliction, like the Queen's English Society, had not that same Hadley Freeman published a riposte at the Guardian, "Humanity's future depends on good grammar." "Children's lives are at stake," the secondary headline reads.*
Well, let's look at what Ms. Freeman says is at stake: "This, it seems, lies at the heart of this issue: should grammar be prescriptive or descriptive? In other words, should we all adhere to a set of hard rules from the 16th century or should we just blunder along, let language take its course and assume we know what each other means? Obviously, the answer lies between those two extremes."
Dear, dear, those "hard rules" are mainly from the eighteenth century, attempting to graft Latin grammar onto English, which doesn't quite fit. And actually, language does take its course, and carry us with it, which is why we no longer speak or write quite like sixteenth- and eighteenth-century speakers and writers of English.
Perhaps, more to the point, having acknowledged that there is a midpoint between extremes, Ms. Freeman drops the matter without troubling to establish that elusive midpoint, veering off to explain that "good grammar will help you get laid."
Not wishing in any way to diminish the importance of grammar in Ms. Freeman's sex life, I'd like to suggest that global warming, say, might be a greater threat to the future of humanity than Tesco's errant apostrophes.
Fatuous competitions like the Bad Grammar Awards ignore the realities of human life, which include a wide range of speech and writing beyond standard written English for publication. Should I be such a toffee-nosed prig as to refuse to buy a ripe cantaloupe from a roadside stand on the Eastern Shore because the vendor's sign reads "LOPE'S"? Or pretend not to understand what "15 items or less" at the grocery checkout means?
Copy editors are assumed, mainly by reporters, not to have much of a life, and a large chunk of mine has been spent wrestling with low-grade prose in an attempt to increase its accuracy, clarity, and precision. Grammar and usage in all their richness and subtlety across the registers of English are crucial to that effort.
That effort deserves more intelligent attention than the Bad Grammar Awards and Hadley Freeman's inept defense of the same.
Addendum: Jeremy Wheeler comments that if Ms. Freeman were as knowledgeable about grammar as she purports to be, she would not be referring to the "subjunctive tense."
*I don't know whether Ms. Freeman wrote the headlines. If not, I suspect that some puckish subeditor delighted in tagging her with ludicrous exaggeration.