So I’m reasonably confident that some of what follows will fulfil my regular function of provoking an irate reader response. As well as, I hope, a little of the rib-ticklery we all need at the start of what looks like being another grim year.
A former editor of mine once presented me with a framed copy of a letter he had received, scrawled heavily in an angry hand. Among other choice expressions, it said: “When there’s good men out of work, why employ such as that Semmens? Send him back to the gutter where he belongs.”
My crime on that occasion was to write about “naughty” words. Not even to use them, just to write about them.
But it’s not generally “bad language” that rubs up the man or woman on the Costessey omnibus the wrong way. It’s little things like apostrophes, hyphens and commas. (Or should that be “apostrophe’s, hyphens, and commas”?)
Reporters who like to boldly split infinitives. Others who don’t know the difference between desert and dessert (I’m not going for dinner with them). Headline-writers who put “striked” instead of “struck”.
I’m still shaking my head over that last one, which appeared just before Christmas on the Guardian website. Yes, I do know the Grauniad is famous as the paper that mis-spelled its own name, and yes I know the internet regularly sets new standards for illiteracy, but all the same.
Anyone literate enough to have read this far must share at least some of my pleasure and interest in words. And this is something I know about. (Sentences beginning with ‘And’ or ‘But’ are another thing that winds up a certain type of person, but they probably find me too annoying to read anyway. As they would Shakespeare, Yeats, Dickens. Oh, and the Bible.)
All newspapers and publishers have – or should have – something known in the trade as a style guide. It’s got nothing to do with what we wear to work, but everything to do with the words we use and how we use them.
I have written the style guide for one daily paper, co-written another, and contributed to the Daily Mirror’s version. I can spot a mis-spelled word or a grammatical howler in the middle of a printed page before I take in what the stories on it are about.
So I could hardly pass the poster outside the Palace Theatre in Manchester without grimacing. Advertising the current run of Billy Elliot, the Musical, it shows a man holding a laughing boy. Above the photo, the caption runs: “Funny touching and shamelessly enjoyable”.
And if that doesn’t show what a difference a comma – or its absence – can make, I don’t know what does. It makes the classic “Let’s eat Grandma” seem positively innocent. (OK, I haven't actually been to Manchester lately - but I don't think the photo was doctored. If it was, it still made the point nicely.)
Commas – like the spelling of such words as “defense” and “color” and the meaning of “pants” – are a little different in America. They tend to scatter them about more than we do. But I’d like to stick up for the American practice (though over there they'd call it a practise) of using what’s known as an Oxford comma before the “and” at the end of a list (as in the phrase “apostrophe’s, hyphens, and commas” above).
Consider the list “the president, a racist, and a misogynist”. Three things. Now imagine the same words without the second comma. On such slender differences legal cases are built.
Style guides tend to include things like whether acronyms should be written in capitals (FIFA or Fifa, ISIS or Isis). Which words should be hyphenated or run together (short list, short-list or shortlist). And how some words should be spelled (or spelt).
Personally, I like an “e” in “judgement”, but not in “aging”. You’d never put one in “raging”, “staging” or “engaging”, so why write “ageing”? But I recognise – as a lot of self-described pedants don’t – that this is a matter of preference, not of right and wrong.
I know people who get quite hot under the collar at what they consider the wrong use of “less” and “few”, or “imply” and “infer”. My own bugbear is the way “may” and “might” seem to have swapped meanings in the last few years. It might take me longer than I have here to explain that one fully.
Do these things matter? Probably not a lot. That’s one of the things I’ve learned (learnt?) in all my research and writing of style.
On the other hand, one can still be permitted a facepalm (one word, no hyphen) when an incontinent Twitter-user accuses China of “an unpresidented act”.