The Idler’s annual Bad Grammar Awards are not about ridiculing grocers. They are about promoting the public discussion of grammar and, perhaps more importantly, exposing cant and humbug.
The judges met earlier this week to choose 2015’s winners. Our Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to Bad Grammar goes to the highly learned, occasionally eccentric and frequently shrill progressive grammarian Oliver Kamm, a columnist on the London Times. Nominated by Idler reader Barbara Kimber, Mr Kamm argues for a utilitarian approach to grammar. He reckons that if a mistake is made enough times, then it is no longer a mistake. We don’t agree: we reckon grammar is more like the law. There is a set of agreed rules but the rules change over time. Both are based on a principle: with the Law the principle is fairness; with grammar the principle is clarity. We need a common language in order to be able to communicate. The problem with Mr Kamm’s actually highly sophisticated approach is that he supports obfuscation. “He would wish to deprive other people of the tools he has at his disposal,” said the judges.
It’s a shame, added our chair Jeremy Paxman, that Mr Kamm’s commitment to his own vanity is so much greater than his commitment to accuracy. He added: “You cannot be clear in your articulation unless you know the grammatical rules.”
Next up came our discussion of Amazon’s “Leadership Principles”. We sent this tortuous garbage to noted grammarian John Seely, author of the Oxford A to Z of Grammar and Punctuation, for his comments. Though littered with small grammatical errors, Amazon’s baffling “principles” are really an example of bad English. An example: “Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves.” Seely notes: “I don’t see why ‘are never done’ is preferable to ‘never stop’.”
Mr Paxman said that the Principles made thoroughly depressing reading. We agreed that they are a fatuous concoction of ambiguity, jargon, ungrammatical construction and confusing metaphors. Surely Amazon could have asked someone literate to take a look at them before shoving them in the faces of bemused employees? We suspect that the Principles may have been deliberately constructed to be awkward and lacking in clarity. Why? Because they can then be twisted by managers to mean pretty much anything.
One judge remarked that the Principles “send the soul to sleep”. Having endured the miserable experience of reading and analysing them, we were much cheered by a story concerning the successful pop star Harry Styles of One Direction. At a recent gig, a fan handed Mr Styles a homemade banner that read: “HARRY YOUR SO NICE.” Mr Styles calmly got out a marker pen, added an apostrophe and an “E”. The sign now read: “HARRY YOU’RE SO NICE.” Harry then signed the banner and returned it to the fan.
The fan in question, 16-year-old Taelor Ford, said: “I was kind of happy that I misspelt it. I’m not really good at English at all. But I’m just so happy that one of them noticed the sign.”
And we are just so happy that Mr Styles is actively improving the English skills of his fans. We’re therefore glad to award our first ever Good Grammar Award to Harry Styles.
To sum up: Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Oliver Kamm. Abuse of English Award goes to Amazon. And Good Grammar Award goes to Harry Styles. Each winner will be sent a copy of John Seely’s book, The Oxford A to Z of Grammar and Punctuation.
The judges this year were proofing queen Beatrix McIntyre of Penguin Books, author Harry Mount, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman plus Victoria Hull and yours truly from the Idler.
Final note: do keep sending us your examples of bad grammar through the year as we collect nominations for egregious nonsense. But please try to give us the date, context and the person who uttered the mistake. We receive many letters which say something along the lines of: “It really annoys me when BBC presenters say ‘were sat’ instead of ‘were sitting’.” That, dear readers, is not enough information for a nomination.