What are the common mistakes that you come across in people’s writing?
Apostrophes are the most common. For some reason, many people worry about fragmented sentences (even when they’re intended) and don’t check their apostrophes. Not all sentences need to be whole, but if an apostrophe is added to a plural noun then many sentences develop an air of silliness. I have friends who want to take markers to advertisements and papers and fix those apostrophes, which shows not only how common they are as an error, but also how annoying that error is to many readers.
Is the importance of grammar and the power of carefully placed punctuation undervalued by writers (or society more generally)?
That’s a tough question. I think it is, because I see how far meaning can be clarified and how rhythm and flow can be improved when grammar and punctuation are used as tools. I hope that other writers see this and agree with me. Some, I know, don’t, until it’s pointed out that their favourite sentence has their heroine’s husband being herded along with cattle because they left out a comma and tangled their agreement. The question is not whether we value punctuation or grammar, but whether our work is the best it can be and whether readers genuinely enjoy reading it. Bad grammar and bad punctuation get in the way of the stories we’re telling and the great ideas we’re explaining.
Does learning a foreign language offer insights into grammar?
Absolutely. Since I’m pretentious today (I’m pretentious every second day, but always on Tuesdays) let me admit that I once taught Latin for six weeks. This was not because I wanted to teach Latin. It was because the Australian National University needed a Latin teacher and me, I needed to revise my grammar. Since the way we describe Latin helps me understand English grammar (for they are linked) this meant I was paid to revise my grammar!
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