Grammar Paranoia and the Double Negative Dilemma

Hello, everybody. My name is Joanna, and I suffer from Grammar Paranoia.

I had a fit today. The potential error beamed out of the screen at me like a beacon, gloating at my lack of perspicacity. I immediately showed the typical first symptoms: increased heart rate, shivering, and battering my forehead with the palm of my hand. Then I broke out in a cold sweat. I dropped everything I was doing, and trawled through grammar guides, gnawing anxiously at my fingernails as my stomach did somersaults. Should I really have written “Me, Beyoncé and the hideous hag”? Wouldn’t “Beyoncé, the hideous Hag and I” have been better? (At least I hadn’t forgotten the comma that saves Beyoncé from being a hideous hag. Or does it?) Welcome to the mess I call my brain.

Grammar police

An example of what MM is capable of doing. (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

As I have already mentioned on this blog, I am a fully paid-up member of the Punctuation Police. I come out in spots and start muttering obscenities under my breath when I spot a greengrocer’s apostrophe. I tell shop owners in hushed tones that there is a spelling mistake “just here“, whilst my children burn up with embarrassment – they don’t understand that a spelling mistake is as embarrassing as having a bogey hanging out of your nostril. So when I find a mistake in my own writing, I chew off my own arms in despair.

The grammar guides were formal: “I” is used for a subject, and “ME” for an object. So why did my instinct say “ME”? Before my parents threw out the telly, the first BBC educational programme I used to watch as a child was called “You and Me“. Could the BBC have knowingly given their programme a name that was a grammatical minefield? Wouldn’t the Grammar Gestapo have screamed blue murder and burned their dictionaries in front of the BBC’s offices if it had been wrong?

My grammar paranoia turned into an internet hunt using the term “me and you”. It resulted in an impressive list of references to films, books and songs, including that great song, “Me and You and a Dog Named Blue“. I doubt it would have been a hit if he’d sung “You and I and a dog named Blue”. And what about Me and Mrs Jones? Would they still have had a “thing” going on if he’d waffled, “Mrs Jones and I are having a spiffing little fling” instead?

This set me off on a new track about the liberties that the music and film world take by breaking grammatical rules. One of these things is the extremely common double negative. There ain’t no getting rid of that dang double negative. No, siree.

When I switch on the radio and sashay my way around the kitchen, everything goes fine until that fateful moment when the singer spits out that double negative, and I spit my coffee over the hob. Puff Daddy drives me nuts with his eyebrow-raising title “Can’t nobody hold me down“. Nor will I waste any time listening to Justin Timberlake whimpering “I ain’t got no money, I ain’t got no car…” in his song “The way I are”. (I’m sure there must be some deep, philosophical explanation for that conjugation of the verb “to be” apart from it maybe rhyming with “car”, but I ain’t got no time to look, as Justin would say). And last but not least… tadaaaah… our friend Beyoncé. Not only is she the “most beautiful mother in the world”, but she achieves an absolute best of four negatives in her song “Get me bodied”. (Whatever that means. I’ve heard of disembodied, but not bodied). “I ain’t worried, doing me tonight, a little sweat ain’t never hurt nobody“. OK, we’ll take your word for it, Mrs B.

Beyonce Awesome Reaction

Beyoncé during her Olympic quadruple negative exploit (Photo credits: Giphy)

Yet modern-day singers are just continuing an age-old tradition – some of the best singers in history sang to us in double negatives. When Louis Armstrong warbled “I ain’t got nobody”, nobody got their grammar knickers in a twist about the fact that two negatives make a positive, so if he “didn’t have nobody”, he actually had somebody.

It’s too late for me. I’ve tried, tried and tried again, but when I hear Mick Jagger singing that he can’t get no satisfaction, I feel like washing his cavernous mouth out with soap and sending him to bed with a grammar book. If I’d been at Islington Green School when they asked the pupils to sing for Pink Floyd, I’m pretty sure that my mother would have tied me to a chair at home then hammered some sense into the authors with a heavy copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Imagine being a copy editor way back then and finding the lyrics of “Another Brick in the Wall” in your inbox. I would have needed a double dose of Xanax just to get over the opening line, “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”. If Joe Bloggs had written these lyrics instead of Pink Floyd, his masterpiece of bad grammar would have been arrested and put in Pedant’s Prison on multiple charges of taking the English language in vain.

I’ve scratched my head a lot about this, and have decided that singers sacrifice good language use to achieve a familiar, “boy next-door who’s just fallen out of the pub and thrown up beside you on the pavement” style of speaking. So, snot fair. We bloggers ain’t got no right to artistic licence wiv grammar, but them singers duz.

I have gone back to my post and changed the title to something less worrying. I’m sure that Muphry’s Law will apply here, and someone will find at least one mistake somewhere in my diatribe about other people’s mistakes. So be it. A little humility ain’t never hurt nobody. Now I’m off for a little lie down – I ain’t got no energy left.

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Super Saver Tomato and the Punctuation Police.

My heart goes out to foreign learners of my native language. English grammar stinks. So does punctuation. I am a punisher for punctuation, a grammar geek, and a stickler for spelling. Yet when I point out glaringly obvious mistakes on billboards and hoardings to my offspring, they roll their eyes at me and tell me to wake up and smell the coffee. Who cares as long as the message can be understood? The inaccurate use of quotation marks, capital letters, apostrophes, commas and exclamation marks is not deemed to be a punishable offence by Bigfoot and his generation, whatever the language concerned. His mother, on the other hand, would happily bludgeon the culprits into oblivion with a hardback copy of English Grammar in Use.

Imagine a world without correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. Admittedly, we would live in a better place where nobody would be frustrated or unfaithful, as the absence of the dashing dash would mean that extra-marital sex would disappear and only extra marital sex would remain. A win-win situation. On the other hand, be careful how you suggest that dinner is ready – without a comma, the suggestion « Why don’t we eat, John?»  becomes a matter of life or death for the person concerned.

My sad condition started out as an amused smile at the greengrocer’s apostrophe, until the latter turned into a major source of irritation for me. I took to hesitating in front of stores, unsure whether to quietly pull out a marker pen or call the Punctuation Police. Nobody else seemed to be unduly affected by this affront to the Grammar Gods. People continued walking by whilst I stood there, fighting with my punctuation principles.

You know what I’m talking about: those lurid fluorescent signs outside high street shops selling “BEST BANANA’S”, and “super saver tomato’s”. Who on earth is super saver tomato? Is he Batman’s new organic sidekick, devoid of capitals? What a pity that the sentence is not completed with his activity (“Super saver tomato’s on his way for lunch with Wonder Woman!”) or the unwanted belongings that are presumably for sale (“Super saver tomato’s underpants at cut price until 5pm tomorrow!”).

Super Saver Tomato, drawn by Rugby-boy.

Super Saver Tomato, drawn by Rugby-boy.

After years of teaching English as a foreign language, I finally gave in to the temptation and set up as a copy editor. I have been happily sticking my snout into scientific documents ever since, sniffing out rogue prepositions and tracking down perfunctory punctuation with more enthusiasm than a pig hunting for truffles. I see my job as the linguistic equivalent of cosmetic surgery, and I love it: give me the written equivalent of Elephant Man, and I’ll do my best to turn it into Brad Pitt.

However, I sometimes have problems switching off at the end of the day. This occasionally leads to frustration when it comes to reading in bed, my number two hobby. (Number one is writing – variety is the spice of life.) I recently snuggled up under my quilt with a promisingly well-thumbed Chick Lit novel I’d found in a charity shop. Within two chapters I was swearing blue murder at the rash of bad punctuation running riot throughout the pages. I grumbled audibly, wondering who the hell had edited the English in this book, or whether it had been edited at all. I fiddled with the corner of the page and my vivid imagination took off. I imagined the editor, drinking direct from the Chardonnay bottle as he picked out the odd spelling mistake or typographic error in the script. Then, no doubt tired of fiddling around, he must have grabbed a box of punctuation marks and magnanimously tipped it over the document like a trainee pizzaiolo attacking an unsuspecting Napoletana with an entire tin of capers. The commas scattered away into the different pages like cockroaches trying to find a quiet, damp corner to hide in, and the damage was done.

I told you I had a vivid imagination. In any case, the readability of what promised to be an excellent storyline, suddenly became somewhat, compromised; because the text was mined, with badly placed, punctuation. Ok, so I’ve exaggerated a tad, but you get, what, I mean….

The last straw was the herd of brackets rampaging across each page, giving me the uneasy feeling that the narrator was schizophrenic. The numerous asides thrown into the text made her look like her own sidekick. I threw the book on the floor, where it has remained to this day.

So spare a thought for poor old punctuation he’s having a tough time of it whether on the street or in published form. (Garnish this sentence with both punctuation and parsimony, if you please.) The day punctuation dies, we will have a heavy sentence to face.