Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest: they’re all littered with a particular kind of message that never fails to turn me cold. The kind that is no doubt designed to be read aloud in a boasty sneer and declares: “Those who can’t tell they’re from their from there are disgraceful failures and should be shot.”
If these were acted upon then I would be dead by now.
My corpse would be a pitted cartograph of bullet holes, illustrating the many grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and typos I have made throughout my life. I have an infuriating mixture of failures: a poor eye for detail, combined with a brain that stubbornly refuses to compute grammar no matter how many times I read Lyne Truss.
Whenever the subject of grammar or spelling arises I become a little embarrassed and more than a little ashamed. I’m a writer, after all. I should know this stuff. Worse still, I read literature and linguistics at university. I studied grammar daily, I got a 2:1 for heaven’s sake. Why, oh why, does this knowledge fail to show through?
The reason for this, in my first drafts at least, is simple. This knowledge does not show through in my writing because I am a writer. I have ideas that need to be written down before they bugger off. I write quickly, without consciously thinking of the words I am using as I write them, simply because what I have to say must be written. The compulsion to write overrides the desire to be correct.
The subsequent drafts are for correcting these errors and this is when the embarrassment and shame creep in, where my brain, which can be so clever in many ways, lets me down so horribly. I remember the rules of grammar as just that: a set of rules to be remembered. At no point have these rules burrowed their way into my subconscious and made a nest in my left temporal lobe. Recalling these facts requires conscious effort and even with the greatest effort I still struggle to spot grammatical mistakes. Simply put: grammar does not come naturally to me.
It is odd for many people to discover that I am a writer not because of my grasp on grammar and spelling, but despite of it. I have lost count of the number of times I have found myself apologising for it.
So next time you like a comment that says: “those who mix up their tenses should be exiled”; or “people who say you’re instead of your clearly have no brains” please spare a thought for those like me. We do have brains, they just let us down, frequently.