Why you shouldn’t be the grammar police, and how to get away with your mistakes

The correct response, when confronted with someone correcting your grammar, syntax or spelling, is an appeal to authority (Shakespeare) with a simultaneous request for their contradictory evidence from a superior authority (confident in the knowledge there is no greater authority on the written word). This may not work when it comes to obvious spelling or punctuation mistakes – but it should help keep the wolves at bay.

I have two slightly contradictory pet peeves. On one hand, I hate reading bad grammar – particularly their/there/they’re, its/it’s and your/you’re. This is mostly because I hate making the mistake myself. I feel so incredibly stupid when an error is pointed out. I think, deep down, that I am a perfectionist. On the other hand – I hate when people point out bad grammar – mine or otherwise. Nothing raises my online hackles more than the superiority of a grammar pedant. I tried being one once. It didn’t make me feel nice. I don’t know how others can do it – it must come from hating bad grammar more than one hates appearing like a complete and utterly superior prig.

If knowing how stupid you feel when someone points out your error does not stop you pointing out the errors of others (sticks, logs and all that jazz), and if you’re so sure that you will never make your own scorn worthy mistake so that you run no risk of hypocrisy, then perhaps you should continue reading – and remember that people actually think less of you when you correct your/their friends in public. Not more.

I will say that I think the exception to this rule is when an institution makes a mistake – and the closer the institution is to the rules of grammar the funnier it is. When governments have grammar style guides and stuff up bridge inscriptions that is funny. When we laugh at Chinese translators mangling English while making their country more open to visitors that is cultural imperialism.

I’ve read a couple of articles today courtesy of Twenty Two words that helpfully reminded me that being a “Grammar Nazi” does not make one superior – nor does it actually make somebody a better writer. Imagine how the very Bard himself would be remembered if he had bowed to the pressure of the grammar pedants of his day.

Firstly, grammar pedants speak too early too often and provide no evidence for their claims. They expect us to sit idly by and accept their views on the movable feast of language while providing not a skerrick nor shred of corroboration for their claims. Up with this I shall not put.

Here’s an article that compares grammar experts with etiquette experts who make claims and then move the goal posts when someone disagrees.

This article provides recourse for people like me who want to rid themselves of pesky comments from friends who suffer from badgrammaritis (symptoms include the inability to let bad grammar pass unpunished).

We have all heard admonitions at some point or other that the word unique cannot be modified — a thing is either unique or it is not. This would be considerably more convincing if it were not so obviously untrue, as people modify unique quite frequently, and have done so for a long time. Through the magic of Google Books you can now search through enormous numbers of books and magazines from the 19th century and see literally hundreds of writers who use more unique, less unique and even that bugbear of the purists, somewhat unique.

(And speaking of literally, the next time someone tells you that it cannot be used to mean aught but literal, you might point out that it has been used in various figurative and nonliteral senses for hundreds of years, by such literary figures as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Richard Milhous Nixon.)

The article points out that most grammar conventions and corrections are given without any sense of evidence – in fact, on Facebook where both bad grammar and pedantry runs rampant, corrections are given with a sense of superior satisfaction but no reference to any rules or conventions that actually back up the criticism.

The erudite conclusion from the NY Times article is proof that a predilection for pedantry does not give you the exclusive rights to good writing. It’s today’s rule breakers who become tomorrow’s rule makers. To use an analogy – pedants are the engineers of the writing world while the rest of us are the artistes – the architects and interior designers, the painters, the landscapers and the Feng Shui consultants.

So I say outpedant the pedants, and allow yourself to gluttonously revel in the linguistic improprieties of yore as you familiarize yourself with the nearly unique enormity of the gloriously mistaken heritage that our literature is comprised of. For those of you keeping score at home, that last sentence contained a verbal noun, a split infinitive, an improper -ize, an inflectional comparative, a blatantly misleading word choice, at least one example of catachresis, an unnecessarily passive construction — and it ended with a preposition. All of which I’m willing to bet appear in Shakespeare.


Stuart Heath says:

The only person I consistently correct (okay, a little bit) is my wife. I do this partly because she doesn’t seem to mind, and partly because she’s got the primary responsibility of teaching our kids to speak. And, you know, purgamentum init…

Nathan says:

Do you do it in public (ie Facebook or comments posted on blogs)? I suspect not – though the only people I correct publicly are family members. And I do that to protect the family brand.

I think correcting people in private is a service. Nobody wants to look like an idiot. It's when you post a comment to tell somebody that they're wrong in a public forum (or in front of others) that I think is a problem.
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AndrewFinden says:

I wonder if there's perhaps more ground for invention and rule-breaking in creative writing. Appeal to Shakespeare and Dickens might be fine if you're a novelist or a playwright (but then, does anybody actually correct the grammar of a professional storyteller?), but should that stand if you're writing a news piece, or a blog? Also, some might argue that one should only break the rules once you've learnt them – is a mistake the same as intentionally breaking a rule as per your last quote?

Who noes?

Andrew is exploring a thought that I've long held. You need to know the rules in order to know how to break them to best effect.

It's like a well-placed swear word. :P

The fact that masters of communication set new trends, forms and conventions doesn't make poor communication any less poor. And the fact that you rail so holistically against the existing conventions of communication may perhaps suggest that your knowledge of the purpose of those conventions is less than masterful. (Does anyone see what I did just there?)

The thing is, that is entirely untrue. Nathan has a lot of communication ability and nous. Which makes you a funny contradiction, mate.

I don't correct anyone's grammar unless they ask me to do so, however. Except on the Hattrick forums.
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brad says:

wow, nathan, how very postmodern of you. you’re essentially saying that no one should have any opinions on correct grammar, because there is no universal rule-book.

what about sentences ending in prepositions? that’s my pet hate when it comes to grammer. that, and people using combined words (eg. “whereby”, “therein”) incorrectly. i hate it.

have you read “elements of style”? it’s brilliant.


Nathan Campbell says:

Bill Bryson suggests the rule about ending a sentence with a preposition was never a “rule” but a policy of one editor at one newspaper.

I don’t mind having standards, or being held to them, I just think most grammar nazis aren’t very nice people, or aren’t very nice in the way they correct.

I think it’s right to hold the government and big businesses (and even small businesses) to account. It’s really only when you go on somebody’s blog, or Facebook, and tell them off for having bad grammar that I reckon it’s a problem.

brad says:

bill bryson is the authority to which you are appealing? haha!

notice i didn’t end that sentence in a preposition. don’t know why for.

Nathan Campbell says:

You don’t even capitalise proper nouns. Whyfore should I consider you?

Bill Bryson published a wildly popular (and widely read) book on grammar – why should I not appeal to him as an authority. He seems to have done the research on the prepositional issue and put forward his findings. One might call it scientifically proven. I am appealing to no authority but logic and reason. And common sense. Ending a sentence with a preposition is fine, it is what they are for.

brad says:

yeah, but i had to be dismissive of bryson, because i haven’t read the book and clearly i know a lot less than him. therefore, as an australian male, it is my duty to put him down.

i don’t care if the preposition thing is correct or incorrect. the fact is sentences look dumb ending wif em.

brad says:

now stop distracting me from my assignment!

Stuart Heath says:

Yeah, gotta side with Bryson on this. I think it’s one of those things (like split infinitives) which is a hang over from when people thought Latin and French were o! so superior, and so tried to take rules from those languages and apply them to English.

KIM says:

Of course Bill Bryson may be used as a linguistic authority! And surely someone else is thinking of the Churchill quote about “nonsense up with which I will not put”??

That said, I can grant stylistic lack of capitalization — I quite often use it myself — as well as breaking the rules once you’ve mastered the rules.

And as for being a grammar nazi — sure, it’s a bit far if it’s out of spite, but I think most corrections, at least on Facebook, tend to be grammar nerds calling out their friends who also call themselves grammar nerds. That doesn’t really bother me — quite possibly because I’m doing most of the calling out! Don’t you just get so itchy to? And what are you supposed to do? Just let someone spell “grammar” wrong and never tell them?

Sorry, Nathan. I was trying not to, but I just couldn’t help it …

brad says:

there seems to be an assumption here that if we know the origin of a “rule” (whether it is truly a rule or not), the rule is therefore disproved. just because split infinitives are based on a latin rule, or because the preposition thing came from some newspaper editor, does that render them invalid? if they were accepted into common usage and taught as rules for a time, does that not make them rules?

brad says:

Oh, and the lack of capitalisation is a habit i can’t seem to kick. I started it in high school, when I thought it was cool.

Stuart Heath says:

That’s not what I’m saying. The thing is, we don’t have a final authority on English grammar (unlike, say, the French, who have the Académie Française). Furthermore, English is very fluid: it is widely spoken and is very amenable to borrowing words and constructions from elsewhere; many native speakers have never learnt their own grammar. (I learnt various languages at school, and worked as a subeditor — and so learnt about punctuation rules — but it was only once I started teaching English to speakers of other languages that I learnt how to explain the difference between “I have walked”, “I’ve been walking”, and “I walked”.)

This means that creating rules in English is a complex process of observing the language in practice, then trying to describe a ‘norm’. Our grammar is constructed from the ground up: rules tend to be created from observation of real examples, rather than being imposed from some putative abstract system.

This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’: aberrations have to be quite widespread before they start to be considered ‘standard’ English: for example, the Australian ‘youse’ is probably still considered technically incorrect, as would be common Yorkshire phrases such as “I were stood at bar,” (that is, “I was standing at the bar.”). And of course, different publishers have to make decisions about their own standards, and I’m happy to respect those. For personal use, if I have a doubt about usage, spelling, or pronunciation, I tend to rely on Fowlers and the OED — not because these are inherently superior, but just because.

Meanwhile, split infinitives and final prepositions are very common in English: they’re not regional aberrations. Indeed, trying to avoid them can make you unclear (in the case of split infinitives) or just plain odd (in the case of prepositions). They’re arbitrary ‘rules’ imposed from the outside; that’s why I object to them. In these cases, I believe — though I’m no expert — they come from other languages. But I object to any arbitrary imposition which doesn’t reflect real usage: the notion that sentences shouldn’t start with ‘and’, ‘but’, or ‘because’, for example. Who made that up?

You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition at.

brad says:

well you obviously know a lot more on the topic than i do. but (and i’m more than happy to start a sentence with but) i think it’s an arbitrary (and squiggly) line between pedantry and incorrectness. and yet all of us here, yourself included seem to put that line somewhere. i would never except the term “different than” (preferring “different from” or, if i’m feeling generous, “different to”), even though it has become common in the USA. though i suppose that’s more about the meanings of words, rather than syntax.

(i use “yous” all the time in speech. it’s aussie. speaking o’ wit – go the roos!)

Stuart Heath says:

Yeah, I think the question of pedantry is all about context: why are you doing it? Is it to help communication? Is it just to feel superior in some petty way?

So I correct my students in their essays (‘coz that’s what I’m paid for); I correct ‘professional’ writers (if I’m doing some contract proofreading, but I would never try to ‘correct’, say, David Malouf, however unorthodox his language might be); I might (occasionally) correct my wife (‘coz she’s the main person teaching our daughter to speak, and prevention’s better than cure…oh, and she rarely makes mistakes, anyway [he hastened to add, in all sincerity]).

But other than that, I don’t see the point. I probably don’t even notice when people make ‘errors’, unless the meaning unclear (or amusingly ambiguous, as in, “He rose to his feet, which silenced the crowd.”).

I think the only time I’ve ever used ‘youse’ was to try an explain to someone the difference between the German singular and plural forms of ‘you’ (du/ihr).

Stuart Heath says:

I reckon it’s a shame we don’t have a formal difference between singular and plural ‘you’. It’d help with some exegetical problems, I reckon (http://leslumieres-au.blogspot.com/2010/02/plural-corporate.html).

brad says:

“yous” is important sometimes in conversation. when you don’t want someone to feel left out. it’s all about love. love is the only authority higher than correct grammar.

i suppose pedantry suggests enforcing rules for no purpose. but i’m not interested (and here i guess i diverge from the original nature of the post) in correcting people. i’m much more interested in the rules themselves. for interest’s sake. which leads me to think that i ought to look into the matter in a lot more depth.

poor david malouf, i’m pretty sure his parents didn’t speak good english, you know…

(that’s a joke by the way. i think the man’s a genius.)

Stuart – there’s a good reason to be KJV-only with “ye” & “thou”!

Stuart Heath says:

If you’re interested in punctuation, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is a fun book (even if not entirely correct, according to the pedants).

If you want to find out about English grammar, Michael Swan’s ‘Practical English Usage’ is my favourite (though again, I disagree with him occasionally). It’s very accessible (as opposed to, say The Oxford English Grammar).

Less wide-ranging than Swan, but a much more entertaining read, is Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

brad says:

sounds like the KJV might be an options as well…