Why grammar is more important than news

A video has been released by IS militants showing the apparent beheading of Alan Henning, a British volunteer aid worker who, his family say, felt compelled to help people suffering from the civil war in Syria. This is sad. This is shocking. This is dreadful brutality.

Most, probably all, the mainstream media have covered the ex-taxi-driver’s execution to some extent or another — maybe sharing the video, or stills from it, or refusing point blank to pander to the jihadists by giving their atrocities any more coverage. But everyone, including the majority of Muslims, I imagine, concur in the belief that a terrible, terrible act has been perpetrated on an innocent man.

Yesterday Ellie Hall and Miriam Elder published a piece on Mr Henning in Buzzfeed, an online current affairs magazine. You can read it here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ellievhall/new-isis-video-appears-to-show-execution-of-british-aid-work#3s0lo0a

Buzzfeed readers are invited/encouraged to comment on articles, and this one was no different. As well as the predictable (and wholly justified) expressions of outrage, I fully expected a slew of anti-Muslim sentiments (and, indeed, there were some, though not — I’m pleased to report — as many as I had foreseen); what I did not expect, however, was a debate on the use of English.

Something that started as a couple of people finding Buzzfeed’s inclusion of a link to the terrorist video to be needless and distasteful sensationalism soon changed its focus when one commenter committed the internet sin of using the (non)word irregardless, something which she subsequently corrected. This prompted a great furore with others resorting to excessive caplslockery to point out the error of this woman’s ways: ‘NOOOOOOO IRREGARDLESS IS NOT A WORD,’ screamed one incensed reader. Others pointed out that this really wasn’t what was important here… and a (virtual) pitched battle was waged, with cries of ‘Grammar is important,’ random ad hominems getting chucked around, and people insisting and resisting that irregardless should be regarded as a real word.

So yes, grammar is important. And I say this not because I’m a Grammar Überführerin, which I am, but because, if you use slipshod English, your message ends up getting lost. The original poster wanted to say how tragic Mr Henning’s death was and how she felt that, as a mark of respect to his family, Buzzfeed should not encourage people to watch the video of his decapitation. This is a valid point and she had a perfect right to make it. She may have been prepared to have other readers disagree with her and say that we should be allowed to make our own minds up about what we see and Buzzfeed wasn’t actually making us click on the link. But her point was completely overlooked and instead, she was mocked and ridiculed and taken to task over her use of English.

I do not mourn for dead people I did not know in life, and I am an absolute termagant when it comes to correct use of language; but — really, Internet? A nice, kind man has died a horrible death and a woman’s poor lexical choice strikes you as more significant? So, folks, don’t let others, whether online or in real life, diminish the import of what you want to say just because you said it sloppily: make sure your grammar, syntax, and spelling are beyond reproach, and don’t give the nitpickers grounds for deviating from the matter in hand.


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