Do you remember the scene from Legally Blonde where Elle gets some much-needed hair-accessory assistance from her friend?
Margot: Here, you’re gonna need this.
Elle: Your scrunchie?
Margot: My LUCKY scrunchie. It helped me pass Spanish.
Serena: You passed Spanish because you gave Professor Montoya a lap dance after the final.
Margot: Yeah… Luckily!
Well, whether or not you are familiar with the details of Reese Witherspoon’s golden epoch… I always think of this scene when someone makes a grammatical error, and follows it up with: “But you understand what I mean!” Um, yeah, luckily.
I recently realised that my biggest language bugbear – the thing that I spot most, certainly, when I check documents for other people – is poor syntax. When your verbs don’t agree with your nouns, or the subject of the sentence changes half-way through, or the bulleted list doesn’t seem like it completes the same sentence. Some examples to explain what I mean…
“The symptoms of this illness is coughing and dying.” No, “symptoms” is the subject of the sentence, and is plural, so you need “are” after illness.
“Covered in spots, the teacher loved my scrunchie.” A spotty teacher or a spotty scrunchie?
This sort of thing is SO UNBELIEVABLY COMMON.
“You’ll need to be good at: taking shots, dancing, ready to party.” BE GOOD AT READY? What are you ON ABOUT?
What these crimes against language have in common, as well as being tricky to explain quickly, is their subtlety. Like a good sneaky tautology (think ‘PIN Number’), they don’t generally leave readers flummoxed or listeners perplexed.
They are the sort of errors that, when you point them out, leave perpetrators at best confused and at worst claiming, “But you knew what I meant!”
As I see it, the crimes I’ve listed can and do affect the clarity of a sentence (or story). The context will, very frequently, make all meaning clear – luckily. But not always. And, as Elle Woods sadly discovered at Harvard, people are quick to judge. Get these little things wrong and you risk your reputation.
Avoid mutilating your English (or Spanish) and you’ll always seem clever, you’ll always make yourself understood, and READY TO PARTY. Wait, what?