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.
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