Does correctness depend on context?

Proofreading_and_editing_blog_33Here is another post in the series prompted by media comment about Grammar Nazis.

Language is not like science or maths, where accuracy is vital. So does it matter if we are flexible with the the rules of grammar & syntax? There is no one right answer, but several factors need to be considered – and much relates to context.

  • Is the piece formal or informal? In formal work we are often trying to impress. We want to show our knowledge, be seen as an authoritative voice, get that contract. Attention to detail is often an important part of creating the right image. In a presentation, a potential client might think “This person doesn’t know the difference between its & it’s. If they can’t do that, how can they be trusted with our intellectual property problems?”  On informal occasions, say a quick piece of advice by email, the same point will probably go unnoticed.
  • Time & purpose may be the over-riding factors. In an earlier article in this series I said that ugly, cumbersome language should never be seen as correct, because it can be improved. Sometimes the key thing is to get the message out rather than to make it elegant. A news flash has to be short & to the point, so do most texts.  The key is to transfer information.
  • Sometimes it is important to mirror reality, for example characters in fiction need to “sound” as they would in real life. So there are two additional complications here – a thug doesn’t use the same idiom as a poet, and a 21st century thug doesn’t sound like a Victorian thug.
  • Language can be a way of showing closeness. Many families have their own private vocabulary, sometimes for the most trivial of things. Not so long ago I read an article about the words people make up for the TV remote control. Such words demonstrate that we belong to the “in-crowd”, because we all understand & an outsider doesn’t. On the other hand, in spite of what Stephen Fry may say, I find it hard to believe that pedants write less effective love letters. I bet that is one of the places where they do “bubble & froth with the joy of language” – which would explain why he doesn’t see the evidence.

Correctness matters when our message or its impact would otherwise be distorted. Context is the key to establishing how close to the ideal of correct we need to be in each case. It also defines that ideal.

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About The Proof Angel

I am a freelance editor and proofreader, working with a wide range of clients from large companies to individuals. I can help you to communicate clearly by carrying out a final check, or by suggesting ideas get your message over. I also have a sideline in textiles, as The Rainbow Angel.
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