Archive for November 29th, 2008

For as long as I can remember, I have always disliked those who correct other people’s grammar unasked. My dislike has little to do with being corrected myself, although I can be careless with proofreading my own work because I am in a hurry or simply because I dislike the task. However, having taught composition at university and sold hundreds of articles, I have reasonable confidence in my own literacy, and the most I can muster when my mistakes are pointed out is generally a mild embarrassment. Nor am I upset when people correct grammar when asked – that’s called editing. But those who decide that their mission is to correct other people’s writing or speech are rude, misguided, wrong (as often as not), and less interested in clear communication than in establishing their own superiority over someone else.

Working on the Internet as I do, I am used to all levels of literacy. Text messaging, lack of education, and efforts to write in a second language all mean that the English I read is often less than fluent. But unless someone asks my help, I refrain from pointing out errors and simply do the best I can to decipher. Under modern circumstances, zeroing in on someone’s errors is simply rude. It’s like telling someone with a large birthmark on their cheek that they have a blemish. If you have any claim to manners, you don’t mention the fact, and do your best not to stare or make the other person uncomfortable with your awareness.

At any rate, many of the grammar police seem to have little understanding about what language is about. Yes, consistency in language helps communication. But English can support a high number of transmission errors without being unintelligible. So why linger over the errors when you should be focusing on understanding?

More importantly, grammar-correcters seem under the impression that only one standard for communication exists. Perhaps this impression is the result of how reading and writing is taught in schools, but nothing could be more misguided. Any language has variations based on region, ethnicity, class, gender, politics, and just about every other factor that you can name. It changes over time and even over circumstance – for instance, my own sentence structure and vocabulary changes drastically depending on whether I am writing an academic paper or a blog entry, or talking to octogenarians or young adults. And when I follow the lead of Shakespeare and I use “they” as the impersonal pronoun (as in “Everybody is entitled to think what they want”), I am not committing an error but refusing to use “he” because of support for feminist language critiques I absorbed in university.

The grammar police, however, like to pretend that language has a single standard and never changes. A particularly popular ploy of their is lament the perfectly normal change in meaning of words; often, they can go on for thousands of words on the subject. But their diatribes are pointless – I have never heard of a single case in which a word reverted to a former meaning because the grammar police complained. In fact, I suspect that on some level they would be disappointed if their complaints had results, because then they would have less point to nag everyone with.

At other times, they show a singular lack of understanding of context. The much-dreaded double negative (“There ain’t no way”) is a common method of emphasis in Germanic languages for over a thousand years. So is repetition, although I recently saw “I personally” on the grammar police’s hit list.

The truth is, the grammar police often show a limited understanding of the language they claim to be defending. For example, you often hear them denouncing starting a sentence with “and” or “because,” although the practice is widespread among writers of all levels of expertise. Their argument is that “and” and “because” are conjunctions that join two clauses. And so they do – but the idea that the clauses can be in separate sentences never seems to occur to the grammar police.

But few of the grammar police are interested in accepting, much less appreciating the endless variations of English. What they are really interested in doing is establishing themselves as experts and their victims as less than themselves. Since this effort is often irrelevant to whatever is being discussed – that is, to the content – it amounts to what Roman orators described as an ad hominem attack – an effort to discredit an argument by attacking the person making it rather than disproving the argument itself. In other words, by making a writer or speaker appear illiterate, they hope to sway listeners against what is being said. Or, possibly, their goal is simply to demonstrate their superiority over the person they are attacking.

You can see these goals very clearly in the attacks on the syntax of George W. Bush – as though it were his syntax rather than his ideas that made him so alarming. Of course, you might argue that an incoherent politician is likely to have muddy thoughts, but the usual impression is that those who dwell on Bush’s syntax are more interested in establishing themselves as smarter than he is than on any more valid critique. They may very well be, but crowing about the fact is ugly and ignores the substance of what he is saying, which needs to be addressed far more than his illiteracy.

Being rude, ignorant, and elitist, the grammar police do little worth doing. They show only their own massive insecurities, and do nothing to advance communication or discussion. In the end, it is not just their lack of social graces or understanding that makes them irritating, but the way that they insist on thrusting their own need to prove themselves superior into every conversation. They are like a man who insists on adding irrelevant jokes into every conversation, only worse.

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