Unfriendly Grammar: A Reply

On Monday, I published a letter from S, who feels the urge to delete friends from her social networks when they write updates full of grammatical errors.  You had lots of interesting responses.  Here’s mine.

Dear S,

I sympathize.  I really do.  But I can’t commiserate, I’m afraid.  I’ve had to work too hard to overcome the response you describe.

People have different priorities.  Those of us who prioritize grammar and clear communication may see it as an almost moral concern.  Believing oneself to be right about something often entails believing that one is, quite simply, better than those who don’t care about that thing.

However, a concern with correct grammar (and its relatives: sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, accurate vocabulary etc.)  is a fairly rarified preoccupation.  And those of us who are preoccupied with it are that way, not because we are better or smarter or right, but because we LIKE grammar.  Maybe not grammar rules (although some of us like those, too), but the effects of correct grammar.  We like the sound of a well-constructed sentence.  We like the clarity of the appropriate word.  Our ears are grated by faulty constructions.  We’ve probably read a lot of books, some of them very snooty books, and we have learned more or less osmotically what sounds right.

Here’s the thing, though.  What sounds right to me – and I am, as you may well know, OBSESSED with grammatical correctness – may in fact be incorrect in some circles.  For example, I know there are people who still castigate those who use “impact” as a verb.  A few years ago, I would have been among the castigators.  Now, I use it freely.  It’s useful, just as the verb “unfriend” (liberally used in your letter) is useful.

I nevertheless still cannot abide the usage “If I would have known….”  Why?  No reason.  It’s wrong, but no more wrong than plenty of other things, and the meaning is clear.    It just bothers me, especially when I hear a news reporter or an English teacher use it.  “Bothers me” is in fact much too mild: it makes me nuts.  So does the word “relatable” and the “its/it’s” confusion you mention.  Other stuff, not so much.

A colleague once sat in my office for almost half an hour, bemoaning her inability to get her students to stop writing sentences beginning with “This.”  As in, “Our house is on fire.  This is a problem.”  For some obscure reason, she hated such constructions.  Maybe she was right; I have no idea.  I certainly didn’t feel like getting into a lather over it, and was a bit disconcerted by how much it upset her.

I am sometimes unable to restrain myself from raging about a foible that peeves me.  However, I frequently hearken back to a conversation I had years ago with another colleague who had ventured into the world of internet dating.  She’d been communicating  with a man  whom she liked quite a lot.  “But I don’t think I can meet him,” she said.  “I’m not going to be able to date him.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because there are spelling and grammar errors in his emails,” she said.

Now, this woman was an English teacher.  I could certainly understand that clear writing was a priority for her.  Here’s the problem, though: that very morning, I had received an email from her that had three glaring errors in it, errors that just happened to fall into my wheelhouse of abominations.  I had to bite my tongue very hard, and I also formed a new opinion of her chances of finding happiness in love.

Mostly, though, it made me realize that my own ravings about misplaced modifiers and apostrophes in plurals might be undercut by lapses of my own, and that others might be thinking, “Well, you used ‘hopefully’ wrong last time we met.”

Which is to say: I try to maintain some humility about this.  I still get irritated, but if I need to run off at the mouth, I try to focus on something specific – my hatred of the use of “aggravate” to mean “irritate,” for example, which according to some people (including Charles Dickens) is not even wrong.  I try not to make sweeping judgements about people based on how well they spell or conjugate.   People make language errors for myriad reasons: dyslexia, limited education, second-language interference, innate ability…I may think less of someone whose poor grammar seems to arise from pure laziness, but I remind myself that, even if that’s the cause, others may judge me the same way for taking taxis when I could easily walk.

Here’s the truth: I enjoy the company of people who know how to use words.  Their ability to use words is one of the reasons I enjoy their company.  However, I enjoy other people for all sorts of other reasons.  Just because they don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect” doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer me.  In fact, while I was busy learning to nit-pick about grammar, they may have been off doing things that had actual constructive impacts on others’ lives.

Go easy on people.  In return, they just might go easy on you.

*

What do you think of this advice?  Leave a comment below!

Have a question about language, teaching, learning, writing or other concerns that Auntie Siobhan can help you with?  Send it to me through my contact page.

Image by Shirley Booth

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32 responses

  1. What a great response. My husband can’t write. Well, he can, but he is the first to admit that his spelling is atrocious, and his sentence structure not the greatest. Did that matter when he wrote me letters while we were apart and just beginning our relationship? Not one bit. There are many things that he can do that I fumble on a regular basis. We balance each other out. When he needs to write something important, I act as editor. When I need something built, he builds it. In the end, it’s just words.

    I have to say, I am self-conscious writing this comment, for fear I might make a mistake.

    Lisa

    • Lisa:
      “I am self-conscious writing this comment, for fear I might make a mistake.” You have no idea how many times I have combed over the last two posts, hoping I haven’t made some obvious blunder…!

      • I just sent out an email to 7 English teachers, asking them to participate in a meeting in January. I re-read my email before sending, but you know, our eyes often ‘correct’ an error as in our minds, we know what we want to say. As soon as I pressed ‘send’, I saw it. Now I don’t know any of these teachers, so my first thought was, “OMG’ they will think I am so unprofessional, and will probably refuse due to my ‘error’.” Since I try to be humble,yet I was (and still am) disappointed with myself, I immediately wrote a 2nd email, admitting the error and adding, ‘I guess I haven’t had enough coffee yet’, hoping it would override my err. We’ll see, right? :-P

        So basically, as Siobhan says, ‘Don’t be so hard on people.’ And remember, that includes YOU too!

  2. Great response. All the horrible grammar afloat in the cyber world drives me nuts as well, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, especially to the people making the errors. Yes, social networks like FB are a cesspool of grammatical error, but they also offer all kinds of other interesting and often hilarious posts. If you are a lover of grammar, it is definitely difficult seeing all the crap out there, but as auntie Siobhan points out, it is not the end of the world, and it is a strong reminder that we all have strengths and weaknesses. I have made my peace with the whole thing, for the most part, but on occasion, I do go on a little “English teacher rant” when I see something ridiculous like “a women”…..serenity now.

    • TT: Yes, serenity. Final papers are coming in soon and my goal, between now and then, is to get lots of sleep. My hope is that this will help me to correct grammar without becoming personally insulted and enraged by it…

  3. A lot of dyslexia runs in my family, and several have a problems with the written word. I definitely notice it when someone else makes mistakes, my own? Not so much. lol. I’m not saying I don’t make them, just that I don’t notice them all the time either. So how can I talk about someone else?

  4. Really enjoyed your response–thoughtful and fair-minded and patient as always.

    I have to say that I used to be so self-righteous about grammar—how annoying and tedious I must have been…. (My grandest pet peeve used to be the misuse of the word irony.) But, like you, I’ve come to develop a sense of humility and peace about the whole issue. That is, I “could care less”—and it’s liberating!

    Now the only grammatical errors I correct are the errors on my students’ essays—those keep me damn busy enough!

  5. (1) I never castigate anyone who uses the verb “impact” but I loathe it. I have never used it myself nor do I ever intend to. (2) I like the point made above that there are all sorts of fun, interesting well-written posts and links which our friends bring us on Facebook. So I tolerate lousy writing because it doesn’t define Facebook but only represents a part of what Facebook brings. (3) If I could channel my animus against bad spelling, grammar and style, it would be against those who practise it and simply do not care ever to improve, rather than those who do. But that is tied in with the larger issue of a culture of mediocrity.

  6. I loved the advice. I also think of all the times I’ve erred – because I am simply tired. And I am glad when I’m not judged for that. Great response!

  7. Siobhan, I loved your humility. I appreciate good grammar and wording as well and am often irritated by improper spelling, word choice, etc. The reasons we make mistakes are so varied though! Like you mentioned, people might find something else much more important than grammar, such as changing the world =]

    • Anne-Sophie:
      I think we all have a tendency to think that whatever we put our energy into is the thing that everyone else should care about, too. I don’t like people ranting at me about my mediocre exercise habits or my lack of knowledge about the politics of a particular country, and I don’t think they’re justified in doing so. Why should I pick on them because they didn’t spend as much time as I did on “would have” vs. “would of”?

  8. Briefly, because I’m about to lose internet access:

    1. I am currently re-reading P.G. Wodehouse. He often used what now would be derided as “text-speak” to comic effect.

    2. Updates from a smart phone — no matter how hard I try, tweets, updates, etc. often have errors, from fat fingers/tiny keyboard, autocorrections that are automistakes, or just jabbing the send key by mistake.

    3. Dyslexia is more common than many believe — up to 20 percent of the population — and may account for inappropriate choice of homophones, frank misspellings and so on.

  9. I try to use correct grammar when writing, but it has never been one of my strong suits. It’s better to write to the best of our ability, than to never try for fear of making a mistake.

  10. Another wonderful post. Excuse me for I can’t stop praising when I’m done reading any of your articles and the discussions which follow.

    It really does feel nice to read when people post in neatly structured English. I’ve had a history of falling for girls who wrote extremely well formed statements in their texts. Its not like I am any better with it (my other posts on this very blog proves it), it is just something I have come to like with my fondness to reading.

    This is the second time this week that I’ve stumbled upon an article which stresses on writing grammatically correct data whenever we’re communicating in public. First one was Eric Raymond’s ‘How To Ask Questions The Smart Way’ where he explicitly states that the entire hacker community, before replying to any query, checks the effort the original poster has put in while asking his question in the public forum, which also includes his way of presenting the question. A grammatically wrong question can almost always get rejected coldly without getting any replies. I see it in real time daily in the IRC chats. Whilst that is my first reaction too, I do always think that the poster is not to be blamed.

    Now, I think I know why.

    p.s Since most of my both written English (it not being my mother tongue) has been influenced from blogs, sitcoms and English movies, I use a lot of statements as they are, like the above mentioned “If I would have known….”. Only if I had known!

  11. I teach 7th grade English, and I run a creative writing blog online. For my students to earn extra credit, they must submit an online “journal” entry (i.e. a comment). Every sentence they submit, that has been written correctly, is worth a point.

    Sadly, I often have students write ten sentences without ever earning a single point, but the exercise (even without earning points) helps them understand how important it is to maintain good grammar and spelling online.

    With that said, let me tell you about a boy I taught some years ago who couldn’t punctuate a sentence to save his life. Yet he spent his summers taking sculpture classes at a local community college. Today he’s a gifted sculptor…who still can’t punctuate a sentence to save his life.

    Is he a valuable member of society? Certainly. Would you appreciate his art if you saw it? Most likely, yes.

    In addition to teaching English, I’m a writer of young adult books, and yes, I have an agent. One thing I’ve had to learn in order to write YA books is this: all that stuff you learned about grammar in college? DISREGARD. Otherwise you can’t get published.

    Furthermore, remember that English is not a stagnant language. It evolves every time someone posts something online. If English wasn’t changing, we’d still sound like the characters from Shakespeare: Hast thou done thy homework? With technology, the evolution is happening so fast, it’s hard to keep up, but those of us who teach English MUST teach our students to be flexible. If we don’t, they’ll be left behind, in an ever-evolving world of techno-jargon.

    Post Script: Next year I’ll be adding a section on “texting” to my ever-popular grammar guide, “The English Handbook Pages” (available on my blog). Without knowing how to text, my students may find themselves disadvantaged in a society that texts.

    • Esther:
      “One thing I’ve had to learn in order to write YA books is this: all that stuff you learned about grammar in college? DISREGARD. Otherwise you can’t get published.” This is interesting. Can you give an example of a rule you’ve been told to disregard? (I’m reading The Hunger Games at the moment. I haven’t been distracted by grammatical problems so far.)

      • In YA literature today, sentence fragments are quite common, not just in dialog, but in narration as well. Also, it’s becoming the norm rather than the exception to start sentences with the conjunction “And.” These were both no-nos back when I was in college English courses, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I’ve had to “un-learn” these rules as a contemporary fiction writer for the young adult market.

        Furthermore, all the polysyllabic vocabulary words I learned as an English major (like “furthermore”) have no place in YA literature. I still find myself slipping those words (titular, conundrum, metamorphose, etc.) into my prose, only to have a beta reader edit them out, and rightly so. If I want to look fancy, I can include all the jazzed up lingo my thesaurus can provide, but if I want to SELL my books, I’ve got to cater to my audience.

        I have read The Hunger Games, but it’s not the type of material I write. My manuscripts are more like Two Way Street by Lauren Barnholdt–a contemporary setting with a somewhat comical voice.

        And have you heard of TTYL by Lauren Myracle? This is an entire paperback-length novel told in IM language. You can’t say THAT one fits the grammar rules we were taught in school! ;)

        • Esther: Ah, I see what you mean. It’s true – the rules we learn for writing academic papers don’t always apply to YA fiction, or to creative work in general, I think. I hadn’t heard of TTYL – I will check it out!

  12. “In fact, while I was busy learning to nit-pick about grammar, they may have been off doing things that had actual constructive impacts on others’ lives.

    “Go easy on people. In return, they just might go easy on you.”

    Good advice. I completely agree. I appreciate people who can communicate well, but English junkies’ snootiness is what really rubs me the wrong way.

    After working as an English tutor at a community college for the past year, I’ve learned to be much, much more gracious when it comes to grammatical correctness. Some of the students who I work with try harder than anyone else I know just to be able to pass their classes because English just really isn’t the subject (second language, handicap, poor education, lack of exposure to decent books, etc.). They don’t need another critic to chide them and make them feel dumb (many of them are already struggling with self-confidence and self-esteem when it comes to their English skills), what they need is someone to patiently, graciously teach them.

    Snootiness doesn’t help people who are struggling with English to aspire to better communication skills, it just creates a form of elitism that makes English less accessible to the people who are struggling. The general snootiness among English majors and teachers I know (certainly not all of them but more than a decent amount) is actually a large part of what scared me off from becoming an English major, myself.

  13. I can relate to both ends of the spectrum on this story. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of grammar rules and one cannot be expected to know them all. I can’t blame someone for lacking education on dangling modifiers, it’s only when poor grammar interrupts reader comprehension that it becomes a real problem. But it usually never gets quite that bad.

    On the other side, I know plenty of people who use proper grammar but lack actual content in their posts. Generally speaking, those are the people I choose to “unfriend.” Especially the pompous elitists who over-analyze every single status update to prove that they’re more intellectual.

    As for your colleague, I think you’re right. Those that can’t look past someone’s most basic errors will struggle to find happiness in any relationship.

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