Why I am a grammar cheerleader

The Twitter list I have for people who post about editing and grammar this morning alerted me to the fact that the United States celebrates March 4 as National Grammar Day. Grammarly, in particular, is very excited:

Though I don’t really hold with awareness days, my Friday morning thoughts meandered to grammar, and why it has such a bad reputation (even though Grammarly is working so hard to make it sexy).

When I was at school, South African education was going through a phase when children were not taught formal grammar. The only reason I know anything about grammar is because I did Latin in high school. My son, who has spent much of his primary school career being taught about things like subjunctive tenses and gerunds, would probably envy my school career. There’s no way round it, grammar as taught in school can be dead boring. And once you’ve made it out of school, there’s always the awful chance you may encounter someone who corrects your grammar for you, as you speak. For most people, the mere thought of grammar is a complete turn-off.

Speech bubbles

Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. Picture: ilker, freeimages.com

But grammar is important. My job for many years consisted of editing the writing of others, and that sometimes involved correcting their grammar. They didn’t like it – but in the end, good relationships were forged around a central understanding: writers and editors are working together towards articles and books that communicate with clarity and elegance and beauty.

And grammar (in any language) is the bedrock on which communication is founded.
An interview by Andy Bechtel with Lisa McLendon, co-ordinator of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas and author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook: Simple Rules and Quizzes to Master Today’s English”, expresses this very clearly:

Q. In the book, you write that you prefer “grammar cheerleader” over “grammar cop.” What do you make of debates over grammar on social media and elsewhere?
A. I’m glad people are talking about language. Healthy debate is good, and anytime people (myself included) can learn more about language and how it works, it’s a good thing. Anytime people think about making writing more clear and accurate, it’s a good thing. Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. That’s why it needs a cheerleader instead of a cop.
But like it or not, we DO get judged by our language, especially online, where the vast majority of communication is written, and often that judgment will override any information someone is trying to convey or point someone is trying to make. Understanding grammar can help someone gain credibility and write authoritatively.

So tomorrow, March 4, I will be raising a glass to grammar and to being a grammar cheerleader.

When to use the word alleged? Some simple rules

One of the most apparently difficult things to get right in news journalism is the correct use of the word alleged.
A Facebook post this morning from a local radio station illustrates the point:

“A shocking video has emerged online of an alleged taxi driver hitting a woman in a taxi at a CBD rank.”

See that alleged? It’s in the wrong place (and in fact is not even really needed) – and the sentence is just clumsy. Here’s what I would have done: Continue reading

How to get into journalism

Library books

Join the library. Picture: Liz Ashe, freeimages.com

Last year, I wrote a column declaring my passion for journalism.Over the last week, I’ve had a Facebook message and then email exchange that I think might be worth sharing.

So why, when in response I had a Facebook message from a young freelancer asking for advice on how to get into mainstream journalism, did my heart sink a little?

In that column, I noted that the media is in the process of cataclysmic change. I hesitate to recommend it as a career path for that reason. But of course, I understand the pull of the craft. So I gathered myself together and gave the best advice I could. And thought it might be worth sharing here. Continue reading

Why online headlines matter, a lot

Huffington Post South Africa engaged in an interesting but flawed experiment this week.They published a story with this headline: ‘Donald Trump Praises Jacob Zuma as “The Best, Ever”‘ . Very clickable it is, combining two big names in online traffic generation. However, what you get when you open the article is a discussion of fake news – a “we make you click and now we will teach you something” story.
Huff Post’s news editor Deshnee Subramany and columnist Rebecca Davis had an acrimonious debate on Twitter about the article, but otherwise it seems not to have generated much discussion, which is a pity because there’s an important issue highlighted in the exchange.
Continue reading

What makes for a perfect paragraph?

Enter key

Picture by Artur Cimoch, freeimages.com

Long ago, at school, there was probably an English lesson about how and where to break text into paragraphs.

As I remember it, the idea was that one thought meant one paragraph, like this in a story from the Guardian:

“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”

There are two sentences there, but they both relate to the question of how much money may be missing in The Gambia.

Compare that to the same thought in the Daily Mail:

But amid growing controversy over the assurances offered to Jammeh to guarantee his departure, Barrow aide Mai Fatty said the new administration had discovered that millions had recently been stolen.

‘The coffers are largely empty,’ he told reporters in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Here, the Mail is applying what seems to be the modern trend, particularly in online articles: the end of every single sentence is a sign to hit the enter key and make a paragraph.

That makes for easy, fast editing and writing, and there is nothing wrong with that. Continue reading

Good taste does not equal good governance

This is going to be a very irritating few days – on Facebook at least.
On Friday, Donald Trump is going to be inaugurated as United States president. Barack Obama and family will take their bows and move on with their lives. My Facebook echo chamber, populated with journalists and eco-warriors and people of a politically correct persuasion, will be filled with shared photo essays of the gorgeous Obamas and many, many WTFs as our favourite American news websites (think Washington Post here) document all the varied failures of The Donald and his flashy family.
Here’s the thing though: the whole thing makes me uncomfortable. Continue reading