Unfriendly Grammar

The other day, I received a letter from a reader who is having an extreme emotional response to others’ bad grammar.  What should she do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan,

Would you consider writing a post on the issues of being an English teacher and social media user?

When I read status updates on Facebook and other social media sites, I actually want to unfriend people who make consistent grammatical errors. If anyone posts on my wall and uses “lol” or “its” instead of “it’s” (or worse, “it’s” instead of “its”) I have the great urge to delete the friend and the message. Is there something wrong with me?

Sometimes I want to write to friends and correct them but I know that I’d look like a pedantic twit if I did. I don’t mind the odd typo, but I get scared when it seems as though friends of mine don’t know how to write in English.

Remember in 1984, when they had Newspeak and they trimmed down the language? That could happen to our language! It’s losing its meaning.

It could be argued that if you can’t articulate a thought you are not having the thought. I don’t want our language to be reduced to lols.  I’ve only unfriended one person so far, but I’ve unsubscribed from many…I know that many great writers invented words, and that our language is always changing. I’m all for developments and new ways of expression, but I fear the sloppy use of language and shrinking meanings.

What should I do?  It’s really making me crazy.

Yours, S.

I’ve written a response, but haven’t yet sent it to S – I will publish it on Thursday.  In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.  Have  you ever had a similar urge?  Is bad grammar reason enough to unfriend someone in the social media world?  Let us know what you think.

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44 responses

  1. Well, bad grammar certainly drives me crazy – enough to push me into making sniping little comments sometimes. But I wouldn’t ‘unfriend’ (rampant ‘verbing’ – something else I dislike) a person for their grammar. I might check in on them less regularly, and yes, I might lower my evaluation of their intelligence. It might in fact affect my opinion of them ‘in real life’ (by which I mean ‘not the Internet’).

    • Sarah:
      I’ve come to terms with rampant verbing – I have fully embraced “unfriend,” as we need a verb for that activity, and I even found myself using “impact” as a verb the other day. Resistance is futile, it seems.

  2. The thing about being a grammar snoot, as David Foster Wallace called it, is that everyone is snooty about different things, yet every snoot thinks that their version of snootiness is the infallible one. I cheer when people re-purpose nouns as verbs, for example, but I tear out my hair when people say “I could care less.” The category of “grammatical error,” in other words, is too subjective and amorphous to be useful and certainly not worth getting into a snit about.

    • Corey:
      There is certainly an aspect of grammar snootiness that is less about correctness than it is about self-satisfaction, but do you not think there are certain things (“its” vs. “it’s,” for example) that mark the user as careless or wrong?

      • Sure, using “it’s” instead of “its” is wrong, and most likely careless. My point is just that snoots often act as though the line between acceptable and unacceptable is a lot more fixed and clear and objective than it is. Up until the early 19th century people were using “it’s” as the neuter possessive pronoun, and then the apostrophe was dropped. (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=its) So it’s not like there’s an airtight logic to it. Your example of “one of a kind” is perfect, too: I had never questioned it, but it’s true that it makes just as little sense as “I could care less.”

        PS I like it that you are so diligent about comment-thread dialogue. I’m sitting here watching my students write a practice essay, in which I’m sure many of them will mix up “its” and “it’s.”

    • RE: “I could care less”: this also drives me crazy, as it means the opposite of what the speaker intends. That said, I heard someone use the phrase “one of a kind” the other day, and it suddenly struck me: does that not also mean the opposite of what the speaker intends? “One of a kind” suggests that there is a “kind” to which one belongs, as opposed to one being unique. That gave my inner grammar gnome something to play with for a while.

      • “One of a kind” is an interesting example; unlike “I could care less”–which really annoys me because, as you pointed out, it’s contrary to the intention of its own use–“one of a kind” is just ambiguous, meaning either a member of a class or a class with one member.

        Sally: This apple is one of a kind.
        Ben: You mean that it’s unique?
        Sally: No, I mean that it’s a fruit.

        On topic, I don’t mind loose grammar so long as the intent is clear; it’s when the grammar obscures the intent that I draw the line.

        • Asur: The “class with one member” meaning still escapes me – I know that’s how we use it, but to me it would make sense to say “a kind of one” in that case. But maybe I’m just being thick.

          • Well, maybe I’m being thick thinking it makes sense both ways. I’ve had to eat my shoe more than once in the past–it’s not that bad with a bit of tabasco to cover the old sock flavor.

            When I read “one of a kind” as meaning a class with one member, I see it as a way of essentially saying “an example of a kind” in the sense of “an example of a kind unto itself.”

            Is that legitimate? I’m not entirely sure, but it seems like it is to me.

      • I take “I could care less” to be a form of irony, and “one of a kind” as a lovely ambiguous paradox. The one that gets me is “one of the only” . Um, it’s “only” morphing into “few” i know, and I love that living breathing quality of language, but for the moment it’s not making any sense to me at all. I think the difference between “only” and “few” is a useful one.

  3. I think if someone is actually a real friend, no one would unfriend them for using poor grammar. But for people we are connected with on Facebook and hardly know, if we feel bothered by any of the things they post (even their grammar), I think most people would have no problem with unfriending them. Who needs the aggravation of hanging around in our free time, and in our private lives, with people who disturb us?

    • Lynne: I think this is an excellent point. I rarely friend anyone I don’t know, so it didn’t occur to me that this writer might have been referring to casual Facebook acquaintances rather than “real” friends. That rather changes the stakes.

  4. I keep trying to tell myself the same thing I tell my students–that there are different types of English and the English used on social media or in texts, for instance, is not the same as the English used in formal communication. But then I see a misused “it’s” or a phrase like “in the 90’s I went raving every weekend” on Facebook and I get all frustrated regardless.

  5. Even thought I’m not a huge user of the term “LOL,” I”d consider it to be in a different category than incorrect spelling and grammar. LOL Is shorthand–implies that you are joking in a message that might not make that completely clear.

    I do have to say, though… that bad spelling and grammar is a turnoff to me, even in short venues like Twitter (140 Characters) or text messages (which used to be limited to 160, but most smartphones now allow you to type forever). I very seldom use contractions like “u” for “you” or “r” for “are.”

    Having said all of that, it seems like it’s a reality of the world we live in. If I unfriended any of my friends who have bad grammar and spelling, I’d have to get rid of half of my friends!

    • Rebecca:
      That’s the thing – some of the smartest people I know make grammar mistakes all the time. This includes English teachers. I am capable of being totally insufferable about this stuff, but then I remind myself that I no doubt make errors all the time that I don’t catch.

    • Watch your phone bills. Your smartphone may let you type forever, but you’re probably paying for more than one SMS if you go past the 160-character limit.
      I don’t mind texting contractions abbreviations in Twitter but find them annoying in other contexts – unless I know the writer is using a small device. Small keyboards are a nightmare! That’s why my mobile email signature states that I’m writing from my phone (but not the phone brand – no free advertising from me).

  6. I can understand the desire to delete someone as a FB friend due to grammar or spelling mistakes – it’s a little extreme, yes, but I can understand her frustration.

    When I see my FB friends making spelling errors on their posts, I like to comment and gently remind them of the way to properly spell the words. I comment at least 3 times. Then I send them a private message stating that I will be purchasing a new dictionary for them for Christmas. And then I tell them that I will be quizzing them on the words sometime in the new year.

    For some reason, more and more people keep deleting me as a friend before I get a chance to delete them…

    Great post! ;)

  7. I think this is crazy- and this ‘zeal’ for her language could be misinterpreted for arrogance; it can make her appear socially unacceptable. In fact, this looks like OCD to me. She should realize that the world will not stop or crumble if someone in it’s crevice blurts out a LOL or something. A lot of people do not know English well, so they may be making an honest mistake despite their efforts to be immaculate. It would be inconsiderate to ignore that side of the coin, and just ‘unfriend’ a person.

    By the by, does she know that the ‘unfriended’ she used in her letter to you is inaccurate? Maybe her lesson is in her own letter.

    • Mendaxxx: I’m not a psychologist, so I couldn’t tell you whether extreme grammar sensitivity is a sign of OCD (if so, I probably have it, although I show no other signs – my house is a mess.) I do think this letter writer’s sensibilities are more delicate than most, but I wouldn’t fault her for using “unfriend” – sometimes a new word is necessary when a new reality presents itself!

  8. Did Mendaxxx write “it’s crevice” deliberately?

    My peeve about LOL is that only an idiot could laugh out loud at some of the statements which precede it.

    I read one message from someone who related how she took the wrong the type of insulin (fast- rather than slow-acting) and almost lost consciousness. LOL. (Seriously? LOL?)

    If she thought that her almost accidentally committing suicide is something to laugh out loud about, then I am not surprised she was dumb enough to get her insulins mixed up.

    • An LOL in such a situation would definitely give me pause. That said, I HATE LOL with an irrational passion – maybe for the reason you cite, which is that, half the time it’s used, it makes no sense. Beyond that, though, it just seems lazy to me.

  9. My advice to S is to hide posts from those whose grammatical/spelling errors are a source of frustration. A viable option to unfriending. Of course, this applies to only Facebook, but I’m sure other social media sites have comparable options.

    I’m not sure I really understand why grammatical mistakes or misspellings are a source of frustration when it occurs in social media. If it were connected to academia, or in a professional context, it’s understandable, but this is an arena meant as a quick communicative tool, and as such people don’t take the time to proof what they’ve written before posting. However, maybe Mark Zuckerberg could program in a grading function so those who feel frustrated with spelling and grammar mistakes can correct those of us whose writing is not perfect. I for one, though, would drop Facebook like a hot potato if that happened.

    My second bit of advice to S is to take a break from social media. If this is a source of frustration, then get off of it for awhile, and fill your time with good books, good movies, projects, actual face to face conversations with people, and volunteering.

    But, uhm…this is, like…just my…uhm, opynion. LOL!

  10. “It could be argued that if you can’t articulate a thought you are not having the thought.”

    -Whoa now. That’s a very powerful statement, and I’m not sure you took its implications into consideration when you made it. In a way, your statement implies that the majority of my English Language Learners are vacant and unable to have thoughts, rather than unable at this time to express the thoughts they are having accurately as a result of a lack of vocabulary.

    That being said, in response to your social media situation, you are allowed to be friends with whoever you want to be friends with. No one ever said you had to be friends with everyone. If it bothers you, un-friend those people, just don’t be upset when those same people un-friend you in real life.

    It bugs me like crazy when people chew with their mouths open. It literally makes me want to vomit. However, I don’t go around instructing my friends on how to eat properly, and I don’t stop spending time with them as a result of it. I just grin and bear it, because they are my friends, and I love them. I cringe a little bit every time my best friend uses “than” and “then” interchangeably, but I’ve never said a word to her about it, because every person I know who went to elementary school and middle school with her, does the same thing. They clearly were not taught to use either of those words properly. It’s hard to hold something like that against an awesome person. If you don’t care enough about someone to put up with their quirks and foibles, then you probably aren’t a good friend to them anyway, and they are better off knowing that.

    This came off sounding harsh, but it’s the honest truth. So many people out there try to be friends with everyone, and that’s not necessarily the best situation. Some people are genuinely friendly and genuinely like most people, and I think a lot more people pretend to like a lot of people and really only like a few.

    • ACHE (wow – that’s an acronym):
      Learning to accept the foibles of others, including our friends, is an essential skill, but one that some of us have developed more than others…your comment is a good reminder of how very important it is!

    • In a way, your statement implies that the majority of my English Language Learners are vacant and unable to have thoughts, rather than unable at this time to express the thoughts they are having accurately as a result of a lack of vocabulary.

      Well, not really: your ELL’s can presumably articulate their thoughts in at least one language, which would satisfy Siobhan’s statement as worded.

      • Not my statement, Asur – I am not the letter-writer. I agree with your explanation, though, but I think it reinforces rather than contradicts ACHE’s point – that the fact that we can’t articulate the thought in a particular language doesn’t mean the thought doesn’t exist. The fact that we can express it in one language but not another would suggest that the thought exists independent of language.

  11. I am with Ache. I am a very insecure writer because I am a person who “spaces out” I put that in quotes because I am not sure if it is “correct”. I know the difference between its and it’s and their and there, but sometimes I space out and use these words and others incorrectly. I try to be careful and to proofread. I spend a lot of time on it. I never ever use alot that’s one thing I’ve got (gotten?) down pat.

    I’m insecure because, though I read a lot, grammar and spelling are still difficult for me. I remember my dad constantly asking my mom how to spell things. She was good at it, he was not. I don’t think he was lazy, stupid or uneducated, though he was completely self-taught. He was a great reader and he did care. It inhibited him from writing which I think is a shame because he had a good mind. I refuse to allow it to stop me.

    I think compassion is in order here.

    At the same time it does strike me when I read general comments on news stories and the like that there are a lot of people who have not been taught or haven’t learned how to spell even the simplest of words and who don’t pay attention to the little red line that tells them it is wrong. Even that I can understand happening once in a comment, but when it happens consistently I have to agree with S, something needs to be done. Nevertheless unfriending (there is a little red line under this word which I am ignoring) should be based on more than spelling IMHO.. ;).

    • WATO:
      I am constantly surprised by the intelligent people I know who have difficulties with grammar etc. Spelling in particular seems to be a more or less innate talent. For years I became really frustrated with people’s inability to spell things until I met a few extremely talented writers who couldn’t spell to save their lives. They suffered over it, and felt embarrassed, but like you they refused to let it keep them from writing.

  12. I don’t know if you allow these types of links, but this is one of my all time favorites on this specific topic – well, not the unfriending piece of it. Stephen Fry comments on language in general. Original credits are given in the notes. http://vimeo.com/15412319 As a teacher of eighth graders, I am frustrated at their lack of basic forms of writing. I am, at the same time, blown away by some of the connections they can make when given leeway and not red marks on their papers. On the other hand, I cringe at reading their updates on Facebook, but this is their generation of slang. It just so happens that texting has created a go-between slang that appear in social media sites. To many, they aren’t creating the next great poetic status update. They are telling their friends to HMU cuz Im brrd.

    I too struggle with odd punctuation – which includes too many hyphens and “quoting” words that in my head I speak a certain way. I like to think I am still readable and engaging with my students and other adults in my field. My writing changes slightly as I take on the more professional jargon that goes along with writing IEPs and other legal documents, but I struggle with whether this complex sentence has a comma here or there or not at all. I forget about using his or her instead of their in the appropriate places. Though I must say that being shamed by a colleague repeatedly for that mistake has “learned me good enough” to quote a student.

    All in all, though, I agree with the above posts in that you may choose your own circle of friends. One of my best friends is a grammar guru, and we poke fun at each other all the time. We’re friends. Everyone has their oddities, though, and I hide news feeds from friends that continually post political rhetoric. Hiding posts that drive you crazy is perfectly acceptable. Unfriending seems harsh unless you weren’t really friends to begin with – wait – unless with whom you weren’t really friends.

    My students drive me crazy, but I keep modeling the correct form to them – via class and Facebook – and try to encourage expression rather than make them feel insecure. After all, you can write a poem about anything – including hyphens and smh at my sk8r BF.

  13. Sorry – one more thought. Perhaps she could post a grammar lesson of the day? That would get her thoughts on a subject out, and as others posted, she could refer to her previous status update. It could be considered a game of sorts. Which posters would have the most points at the end of a challenge week? Tune in to find out!

  14. @SouliersNoirs.

    Are you against what ‘LOL’ evokes, or against ‘LOL’ itself? If she had written ‘I laughed out loud’ at the end of the status, would you be okay with what she said?

    There’s a difference between hating ‘LOL’ and hating how some people laugh in a serious situation.

  15. @Siobhan

    So who gets to pick which new words/acronyms are okay to use, and which ones aren’t? If you think ‘unfriend’- which is definitely not English- is alright to use, what reason does someone have to listen to you and pounce on ‘LOL’ or other new ‘words’ that have been recently conjured?

    • Mendaxxx:

      Anyone gets to pick which words/acronyms bug them. Only lexicographers get to prescribe which ones are “okay,” and no one is obligated to listen to them. The question one needs to ask oneself when using language is: who do I want to impress, and why, and how?

  16. I’m an English teacher, but when I log on to Facebook or Twitter, the white gloves come off and things get a lot more bare-knuckled. For me, at least, it’s an opportunity to muck around with language in ways that would lift more than a few brows if I did so in a different setting.

    I’d like to point out that “out loud” doesn’t mean the same thing as “loud.” I tend to use “lol” to express a chuckle; “teehee” when I want to show mischievous glee. Don’t think I’ve used ROFL in quite awhile, though.

  17. I think we need to separate language register. In linguistics, a register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. Just as we have a different register for academic purposes than for informal socializing, a different register also exists for social networking and social media. We, as English teachers, need to learn to accept that different varieties evolve around new settings and contexts. If you can’t take it, don’t get into social networking! You’ll be trying to change a whole world different from yours. It’s like trying to plug a hole in the dam with your finger.

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