If you're going to be a tedious grammar pedant, at least get it right

8th October 2021

Tedious grammar pedantry
I'll 'fess up right away: I've definitely been "that guy." You know, the kind of dickhead who loves nothing better than to wag his finger at people and say things like, "ackshually, it should be 'fewer' rather than 'less'."

Sorry about that. I think I'm over it.

Beyond a certain point, if you know what somebody intended to say and you understood their meaning with ease, you're just being an insufferable know-it-all who can't resist an opportunity to make a big show of your oh-so-superior brain power or education. Ackshually, I think it's often more empathetic, polite, and socially intelligent to shut the fuck up and keep it to yourself.

That being said, I have no qualms at all with pedantically correcting people who are themselves already being pedantic, because as far as I'm concerned they started it.

So here we go - here's what prompted me to write this post:

The 'plural shop' thing

I've been seeing a bit of grumbling about speakers who put an 's' on the end of shop names. You know, "Tescos", "Asdas", and the like, as in, "I'm going to Tescos". I've seen a few people poking fun at the idea of somebody going to multiple Tesco buildings to complete their shopping. How moronic! What a prize plum you must be, to say such a thing!

Except that's not what people are saying, is it? It's "Tesco's", as in a shortened form of "Tesco's Supermarket." Like "McDonald's Restaurant." It's a possessive, not a plural.

The building isn't called Tesco. Tesco is the business that owns the building. It's like if you say you're "going to a party at Ron's". Everybody understands this to be shorthand for, "Ron's house". Nobody thinks the building is actually called "Rons".

Now, we don't do this for every shop. We don't tend to say "Superdrug's", or "Pizza Hut's", although we do say "Wilko's" and "Lidl's". It's just a matter of convention as to when we say it and when we don't.

The point I'm making is that it's perfectly fine by vernacular standards to say you're "going to Aldi's." That's a normal thing to say, and is based on sensible grammar.

It's not the howling linguistic blunder that some people seem to think it is, so if you're somebody who lectures people about this, please do us all a favour and put a sock in it.

And while I'm on the subject of misguided grammar pedantry, let me get another thing off my chest:

Starting sentences with 'and'

People love to bang on about how you're not supposed to start a sentence with 'and'.

You know who says that? Primary school English teachers. They have their reasons, but it's not a real rule. People begin perfectly valid sentences with 'and' all the time.

If it's good enough for Austen, Tolkien, Twain, Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, and Hemingway (who collectively are just the first few writers I could be bothered to look up to confirm that they have done this repeatedly in their work, although you can bet there are a zillion others), it's good enough for me.

So unless you're certain you know more about the use of good English than history's most celebrated authors - not to mention the Oxford University Press and the Merriam Webster dictionary - please stop repeating this made-up decree.

It's simply not the case that you can't start a sentence with 'and'. It's never been true. This 'rule' is just something we tell children to stop them from writing like idiots. You're not supposed to cling onto it dogmatically for the long term.

In fact, there are often perfectly good reasons why you might want to start a sentence with 'and' (or another similar conjunction), not least for reasons of flow or rhythm, or for the purposes of maintaining a particular tone of voice.

Are you even certain the person you're correcting is mistaken?

I mean, it's kind of presumptuous to assume that the person making a supposed linguistic faux pas is less educated or less well-informed than yourself. Do they genuinely need you to explain the correct way of expressing themselves?

Yes, people say dumb things sometimes, but it's also true that many capable speakers and writers will often knowingly break a so-called 'rule' because they have a good reason to do so.

For example, I no longer assume that every shop sign that says "10 Items or Less" was written by somebody who didn't know better. I now suspect that marketing people may do this sort of thing deliberately when trying to appeal to certain demographics.

Let's imagine you're doing some signage for Poundland - doesn't it sound sort of stuffy and formal to write "10 Items or Fewer"? Do the majority of the shop's clientele speak that way? Chances are they don't, and it's not as though any of the essential meaning is lost by tweaking the wording.

I think there's definitely something to be said for speaking to people using language that they will find familiar and friendly, and that's probably a sensible branding decision to make.

Look, if there's anything more insufferable than a pedantic know-it-all, it's a pedantic know-it-all who's wrong.

My theory is that most of the time when pedants do this, they are generally less motivated by a deep desire for the purity of language than they are by a deep desire to show off and tell everybody how clever they are, regardless of whether they're actually remotely right about what they're saying.

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