Yet is our understanding of her intent seriously handicapped by her incorrect use of the verb ‘to be’? Most people would still grasp the intention – to enquire as to our whereabouts on the previous day. This is not to say she should not sometimes be gently corrected, but to criticise her would be an overreaction.

However the answer to my student’s question is yes – mistakes matter. Of course they do!

Allowing mistakes to pass without criticism is a slippery slope; it could be argued that increasing permissiveness amounts to negligence on the part of the guardians of the language.

For example, a county in southern England was criticised last year for its proposal to do away with apostrophes in its street names.

Here, I have to disagree with the council’s policy. Apostrophes serve important functions in language to denote possession, plurality, elision, etc. It is one thing for a language to change, quite another to become lax in its use and simply not bother learning the conventions in the first place.

In order to break a rule one needs first to know it, and know it well. One suspects that many of those who shun apostrophes don’t know the first thing about them and simply want an easier life.

An excellent and entertaining book about punctuation (no, really!), including apostrophes, is Lynne Truss’s (note the apostrophe) ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’. It is an impassioned call to arms, a reveille for those who care about language and its usage, without ever being supercilious or exclusive. Language is for everyone, after all.

Ms Truss uses the example of how the insertion of a single comma in the phrase ‘eats shoots and leaves’ completely changes the meaning of the sentence. The gist is this: a panda bear walks into a shop, orders a sandwich, eats it, then takes out a gun, shoots the gun at the window, and leaves. The manager runs up to the panda bear in the street (this panda bear can speak – after all, he ordered a sandwich) and asks him why he did that.

‘Look,’ says the panda bear, and produces a badly written book about panda bears. It says here: ‘A panda bear eats, shoots and leaves.’ Then he walks off. The manager is perplexed.Truss’s point is that the insertion of the comma after ‘eats’ changes the sentence from one verb and two nouns – ‘a panda bear eats (verb) shoots (noun) and leaves (noun)’ – into a sentence with three verbs – ‘a panda bear eats (verb), shoots (verb) and leaves (verb)’.
It’s a clever way of demonstrating what happens when we break the rules – badly.


. slippery slope – metaphorically, a decline in standards of behaviour or quality (‘it was a slippery slope for him after his wife left’)

. to do away with – to dispense with something or someone that is considered unnecessary or unpleasant (‘I’m going to do away with him, he’s so evil!’

. lax – short for lackadaisical, which means to do something without proper enthusiasm, determination or attention (‘it was clearly she wasn’t interested in the job as she was very lax in getting her work done’)

. shun – to persistently avoid, ignore or reject someone or something through antipathy or caution (‘he shunned parties as he was very shy’)

. don’t know the first thing – know nothing about the subject (‘you don’t know the first thing about football, do you?’

. call to arms – a call to defend or make ready for confrontation (‘she issued a strong call to arms regarding the need to protect the environment’)

. supercilious – behaving as though one thinks one is superior to others (‘I don’t like him, he’s so supercilious towards me’)

. the gist – general meaning of a text or speech rather than specific details(‘I get the gist of what you’re saying’) NB: always used with the definite article, not the indefinite – ‘THE gist’

A. Porter