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Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Grammar Police

Note: This is a post of an essay that first appeared on my website April 2nd, 2004. The original essay can be found here. This is part of an ongoing effort to put all of my soapbox entries onto this blog, to give a space for user feedback. A "new" retroactive post will be made every Monday.

15 September 2004

I'm the webmaster for the company I work for. I recently received an e-mail from someone telling me about a grammatical error on the site. The typical- this is the grammar police, you used "good" when you should have used "well." And yeah, I know better. I should have written it the right way to begin with, but it just kind of bugs me that someone goes around nit-picking the site that way. Actually, this is a subject that I've given some thought to since language is one of the things that interests me, and I think that a lot of people put way too much emphasis on the rules of grammar.

People have been around for a long time, tens of thousands of years. Most likely, language has been around that entire time, and probably in more primitive forms in the species leading up to people (even if you don't believe in evolution, at least accept the fact that language has been around for thousands of years). Were there schools all the way back then? Were there grammar guidebooks, or scholars studying the language? Probably not. People just spoke. Yes, there was structure to the language, but the rules to grammar were something that were learned through use and practice, not through formal studying.

The main point of language was, and still should be, to convey an idea to another person. Grammatical rules help to make language more efficient to a point. You can't just throw together a string of nouns and verbs randomly and expect someone to fully understand you the first time around. But if you spend your time getting hung up on whether or not there's a split infinitive, or a preposition at the end of a sentence or some other nit-picking thing like that, you're missing the point. Like when I said that it worked good instead of saying that it worked well, do you think anybody really misunderstood what I meant?

Language is not an invention of scholars. It is a tool of the people. It has slowly developed over time, and it's only been in the last few hundred years that scholars have taken the time to write the rules of grammar. Since language is a tool of the people, however the majority of a population speaks a language is the correct way to speak that language. And it's dynamic. Language changes over time. Just take a look at Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or a King James version of the bible, and compare it to modern English. Does that mean that everyone speaking today is speaking incorrectly because it's not the exact way that English existed at one point in time? Or that those people in the past were speaking English incorrectly because it doesn't match our modern rules of grammar? Of course not. Like I said above, however the people speak it is correct. And since we've seen changes in the last few hundred years, we can surely expect changes in the future.

Yes, grammar is important, but language has survived for thousands of years without scholars, particularly without "grammar police." I don't think there's any reason for that to change now. So get off your high horse and let people speak.

Comments

You make a solid point about conveying a message to the people; however, if you look at it from their view, they are strict about our language and therefore the only message you're conveying to them is you can't write properly. Which also gives them the following thought: if they can't even write properly, who says they can run their business, create a product, or utilize their service properly?

I know this because both my mother and grandmother were keen these thoughts. I inhereted it too...to a point. I just don't make it a habit to criticize someone's mistakes unless they ask me to. Instead, I let them be as they wish, mostly because they seem to feel insulted, overly embarrassed, or downright annoyed.

My grandmother used to correct every grammatical mistake I would ever make and I hated it back in the day. Now, as a writer, I thank her for it, and remember all of the mistakes she corrected.

Maybe that's why the grammar police enforces the language so vehemently, thinking that maybe somewhere down the road in life, that person may remember in the future the differences between there, they're, and their.


The main point I was trying to get at, was to distinguish grammatical rules as being descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The "right" way to say something is the way that the majority of a population actually says it. Or else, I could rant and rave everytime I see someone using "you" when talking to more than one person, when the the proper word for second person plural is clearly "ye," or whenever someone writes "RADAR" in lower case letters, since acronyms are supposed to be capitalized, or countless other changes that have occurred in our language. Like I wrote originally, language is dynamic, and changes over time, and scholars don't hold a monopoly on defining it.

To your other point, "if they can't even write properly, who says they can run their business, create a product, or utilize their service properly," I agree that's a popular sentiment, but it's wrong, and most people who are smart enough to care about grammatical rules should be smart enough to know that it's wrong. As a case in point, I'm an engineer, while my boss, whose grammatical skills are horrible, is a better engineer than I am. The ability to design parts has nothing to do with the ability to write, any more than the reverse is true.

Actually, reading the last sentence of your comment reminded me of another reason why grammatical rules shouldn't be hard and fast. You wrote, "there, they're, and their," putting a comma between every item. Many style guides say to omit that last comma, while others say to include it (Wikipedia entry on Serial Commas). Who's the authority? If grammar is prescriptive, who gets to decide the rules?

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