Punctuation saves lives: just ask Grandma


July 30, 2014

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Here at Moneypenny we are on something of a mission to promote the English language and the proper use of punctuation. We are on the lookout for spelling and grammatical howlers, and every month will be sharing a new finding. Here, Debbie Barton, head of PR for Moneypenny, shares her thoughts on the importance of grammar.

All staff answering our telephones take grammar, spelling and general knowledge tests as part of their induction and, while we’re not perfect, we all do our very best to get it right. Speaking for myself, I am one of those annoying individuals troubled by, and too often vocal about, rogue apostrophes and errant commas. So why does it matter?

A comma is tiny – how important can it be? Not very, you may think, but it could be the difference between life and death. Which is it to be – “let’s eat, Grandma” or “let’s eat Grandma”?

All around us are wonderful examples of the power of punctuation. You may know the tale of an English teacher who wrote seven simple words in front of his students and asked them to add punctuation. Those words were:

A woman without her man is nothing.

The males replied: ‘A woman, without her man, is nothing’. While the females read it very differently: ‘A woman: without her, man is nothing.’ Anyone familiar with Lynne Truss’ wonderful book Eats, Shoots and Leaves will remember the famous ‘Dear Jack’ verse. Exactly the same words but depending on where the punctuation was inserted, two very different poems; one of love, one of hate!

We really do need to be taking punctuation seriously. In 2006, the positioning of a single comma was the subject of a Canadian court case, in a contract dispute worth $2million.

As it goes about its daily business, the apostrophe is much misunderstood too. How often have we seen sales materials promoting CD’s, DVD’s, MOT’s, shirt’s or one of my personal favourites – potatoe’s? An early advertisement for a certain ‘reassuringly expensive’ beer read ‘Perfection Has It’s Price.’ Presumably that piece of marketing collateral, with misplaced capital letters, as well as a rogue apostrophe, passed across the desk of a number of individuals before finding its way into print, making it all the more incredible that it saw the light of day.

It may all seem terribly tedious but it matters and it seems we have a lot to do in this country to bring our language skills up to speed. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2013 made for concerning reading, revealing how England’s 16 to 24-year-olds are falling noticeably behind their Asian and European counterparts. Out of 24 countries examined, England ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy with Netherlands, Finland and Japan at the top of the table and the USA propping it up in last place.

In our work here at Moneypenny, answering the telephone and passing on many thousands of messages to businesses of all sizes every day, we are trusted to be reliable. The use of language is an important part of that. In our world of electronic communication, text speak, information overload and abbreviation, we want to fly the flag for good spelling and while they may seem like tiny, trivial appendages, remember that commas and apostrophes really can make all the difference, and deserve our respect.

If you spot any grammar gaffes we’d love to see them. Tweet us @Moneypenny with the hashtag #grammargaffes