Love English

Policing grammar on the radio

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Written by Stan Carey

Irish politics in late August was consumed by a controversy known as golfgate, in which scores of politicians and other public figures broke pandemic regulations to attend a golf society dinner in a Galway hotel. After the story was published in the Irish Examiner, it became a protracted national scandal, made international headlines, and led to resignations including that of the EU Commissioner for Trade.

The day after the story broke, Irish Examiner journalist Aoife-Grace Moore went on national radio to discuss the political implications of the article she wrote with Paul Hosford. With the entire country up in arms about powerful figures’ reckless behaviour, one listener was moved instead to focus on how Moore spoke, emailing her newspaper to complain about her grammar.

First, he said that ‘Me and Paul, who wrote the story’ should be ‘I and Paul’. No: ‘Me and Paul’ as the subject of a clause is fine in everyday speech, though it’s proscribed in formal written English. The complainer’s preferred phrase ‘I and Paul’ would sound strange even in formal writing, compared with the usual ‘Paul and I’. This suggests he does not have a good ear for communication.

Second, he said that ‘There was 82 people’ should be ‘There were 82 people’. This concerns formal versus notional agreement. Moore used notional agreement, and that’s fine in the context, which was not very formal. Third, he complained that ‘should have went’ should be ‘should have gone’. In formal written English, yes, but ‘should have went’ is grammatical in some dialects. The grammar differs from standardized English, but it’s perfectly clear and legitimate in its own right.

According to Muphry’s Law (yes, that’s how it’s spelt), any complaint about grammar or usage will itself contain an error. Sure enough, the pedant misspells Moore’s name, and his punctuation is a mess. More importantly, he fails to understand that the rules of formal written English are not universal. Different norms apply when you’re having a conversation, for example, and speaking in your own dialect. So those ‘rules’ don’t even apply in most situations.

As I said on Twitter, one reason that men police women’s speech is that it’s an easy, socially accepted way of policing their behaviour while dressing it up as concern for educational standards. I don’t know what motivated the complainer in this case, but would he have sent the same email if the speaker was male? Given that Moore is Northern Irish, at least he didn’t gripe about her accent. But it seems that nothing in life is certain except death, taxes, and grammar policing.

About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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