Litter Milk: The Importance of Proper Spelling and Grammar

This entry was posted Thursday, 24 February, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I love coming across unintentionally funny signs or wording, where errors of spelling or grammar create the absurd, strange, or plain funny.

A while ago, I came across this sign on the door of a local shop. I always try and make my students understand the importance of correct spelling and grammar, in order to not only project the right image, but also to ensure they are understood, and that their message achieves its purpose. Incorrect punctuation, grammar, or spelling can create opposite meanings, cause confusion, or provide someone like me with a good laugh.

I have two favourite examples that I share with students. The first¬† is an old story. An instructor wrote the following sentence on the board, and asked the class to punctuate as they saw fit: “woman without her man is nothing.”

The men wrote, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The women wrote, “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

Same words, but with different punctuation, you end up with the complete opposite meaning.

The second is one that came up in one of my classes. A student submitted his/her resume and on it was listed that the student had “excellent piratical skills.” While I know being a modern pirate can be thrilling, and often lucrative, it was not the kind of job the budding engineer was looking for. This particular example I use to illustrate the importance, too, of proper proofreading and the need to not rely solely on Spellcheck.

A native speaker may not have to even think about the proper term for what they are doing when they write, and I can almost guarantee that if you stopped someone in the street and asked them what a co-ordinating conjunction was, or a cumulative adjective, they wouldn’t know, and they don’t have to, as long as they know how to use them. I always tell my ESL students that I understand their frustration, because English is one of those annoying languages that has so many rules, and then countless exceptions to those rules. It’s important, however, to learn the nuances and rules of proper grammar in order to make your message clear.

It doesn’t help me that I am trying to teach English in North America, where people don’t seem to use adverbs correctly (e.g. “I like to eat healthy”. Healthy what? Healthy is an adjective, e.g. healthy food, so the previous example is missing something to be described. Compare:¬† “I like to eat healthily”. This uses an adverb to describe how you like to eat.), or where there are different spellings for almost everything. I also tell my students that I feel I even have to learn a new language being here, because Canadian English is a bit of a hybrid of American and British English. Add to that the abundance of different words that South Africans like me use on a daily basis that come from our indigenous languages, and no wonder it can get confusing!

I’m still not sure I will be buying any litter milk any time soon…

Geraldine

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