Standing Up to the Grammar Police

Did you guys see that dangling preposition? (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Hey, did you guys see that dangling preposition? (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

You and eleven of your best friends are meeting for dinner downtown on Friday night. Two of you are pregnant and drink soda instead of sharing the beer pitchers, three order from the gluten-free menu (but then two admit the gluten thing is just a hunch they haven’t really mentioned to their doctors and end up sharing the mudslide brownies anyway), one has an appetizer instead of a meal, four are vegetarians who can’t share the table’s pulled pork nachos, one drops $13 on the table and leaves halfway through dinner to catch the train, and it’s Eric’s birthday, so he’s not paying for anything.

Your server won’t give you separate checks.

When this happens and it’s time to reach for the wallets, everyone is pretty much ready to erect an altar to the person who is good at math. No-one is ever sorry to have a numbers whiz handy.

However, a grammar expert is usually someone you can do without.  This is difficult for me to accept, since I always aced English, while math class was one of the top two or three things that could reliably make me contemplate suicide in high school.

If you slip up figuring out an 18% tip and your math-prone pal corrects you, you don’t roll your eyes at the “math police.” You offer heartfelt thanks. But when a grammar nerd takes it upon himself to explain the difference between “who” and “whom” as a subject and a direct object, respectively, gratitude usually isn’t the emotion that comes to mind.

That’s because miscalculated percentages can cause real problems in the world, even if it’s just a matter of stiffing your waiter. But I’m convinced that at least 70% of unsolicited grammar and word usage corrections really don’t matter when it comes to effective communication.

It hurts me to say this. After all, I had a conniption after spotting these signs in my local Trader Joe’s:


From Vuracious Palettes and Other Recent Tragedies of Retail Signage.

But admit it. Misplaced apostrophes, spelling calamities and homophone disasters really don’t get in the way of what Trader Joe’s is trying to say here. They don’t even discourage me from shopping at Trader Joe’s. In fact, looking for the store’s bizarre typos enlivens my shopping trips.

A meme going around awhile back confirmed my horrible suspicion that language rules really don’t matter a whole hell of a lot.

If the ol’ brain just keeps right on rolling regardless of the order of the effing letters, why are we having coronaries on the daily about “their” versus “there” versus “they’re”?

I took a grammar quiz I saw on Facebook recently. The last page of the quiz urged you to share your score and challenge your friends: could they beat you? I got a high score.* But I could not savor my victory over the words, because as all followers of Grammarly know deep down inside, it’s not really you versus the words. It’s you versus other people who don’t know the words (i.e., cretins).

It pains me to write this — it really does. My ventricles will never stop clenching every time I see an “it’s” that should be “its.” My own mother taught grammar, and sloppy apostrophes make my blood run as red as the pen she wielded. But language, foibles and all, is about making ourselves understood. Perfectly engineering the placement of “only” or the transitive/intransitive distinction between “lay” and “lie” doesn’t make the average person understand you better than he already does.

We’ll never be able to agree on the line between pragmatic linguistic descriptivism and hissy fits on the disintegration of our language (LOL!).  Maybe Twitter and texting are marching our language straight into the toilet. Or maybe language is just naturally evolving into a more expedient, digitally-adapted way to express ourselves and to understand what others are saying.

A family member shared this article on commonly misused phrases. People are always sending me this stuff. Yes, saying “supposedly” and not “supposably,” and “could have,” not “could of” are really important to me.  But I’ve forgotten why it’s so important to remind others of that, as long as I understand what they’re saying. For example, the “so” in the previous sentence is used incorrectly. Did your head burst into flames? Or worse, did you mistake my meaning?

“So” isn’t supposed to be an intensifier on its own. When used in writing, “so” should be an indefinite adverb of degree. Hey! Wake up! Ok, we’re moving on.

To put it another way, what the Grammar Police forget is that language is a tool. For communication. Not for beating each other about the brains. There are places for strict language standards, like resumes, official signage, and business cards or websites. Copy-editing is an important profession. But for other arenas, like friends’ e-mails, spoken conversations, family dinners or online comments, what do you accomplish by calling out others’ dangling participles? Even if you could improve others that way, is it your job to do so?

Don’t let the Grammar Police get you down. They’re usually self-appointed. Let them show off. And pat yourself on the back for knowing that language isn’t meant for bullying.

*100%. Does that make me a teense better than you?

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  1. I think grammar policing is a kind of obsessive-compulsiveness combined with an overpowering desire to be right. To which I am completely prone.

  2. Well, I only came here to brag and say that I am in your club and also got 100% on that test. I thought it was a breeze.

    I feel similarly – I want some major points for being able to spell almost anything and being a natural born editor. That’s the one area it does come in handy. Once people learn of my amazing skillz they tend to ask me to edit their professional documents and public displays, etc. And yes, I always advise them to spell skillz with a “z.”

    However, fortunately I learned that it’s worthless to go around pointing things out unless you have the right audience. I’ve gotten over being bothered by it and choose instead to just enjoy the humor as my own private joke. Sometimes I even say “I’m good,” in response to “How are you doing?” or “Me and Bob” even though it feels wrong every time I say. Why? Because I’d rather not sound like a weirdo.

  3. Brilliant post Alaina! I have to bite my tongue on a daily basis because of the cretins but, as you say, there is no positive outcome to grammar policing other than making yourself look like some kind of total jerk!

  4. There is no cure for this disease. You can’t turn it off – you just have to keep your mouth shut and laugh – or share with another member of the grammar police, who understands the red pen syndrome. Although this hereditary disease can lead to a career, Alaina Mabaso.
    Love this blog!

  5. Eleanor Jean Dillard November 20, 2013 — 8:00 pm

    Thanks Alaina. Even NPR drives me mad with “intending on” and “returning back.”

  6. My keyboard is fritzy and the cursor jumps around as I type, erasing some words and adding letters where they don’t belong, resulting in many errors. I try to remember to proofread, but if I’m in a hurry I’ll often skip the proofreading. Then I feel a sickening sense of remorse when I realize I’ve posted something containing grammatical or spelling errors, as if I’ve committed a terrible crime. But I can’t afford a new computer.

  7. I’m write their with you, Alaina. I feel like I should be a descriptivist for a lot of reasons and yet I am constantly noticing and correcting (in my mind) grammar, especially, for instance, in TV shows where I feel like the character should know better. I try to limit my out loud corrections to times when I am in the presence of other grammar police. I took the grammar quiz on FB and kept wondering when they would get to the difficult questions. When I was done, I was too ashamed to post my score of 100%

    • Yes! I was surprised – I thought it would be a tough quiz of really obscure grammar bits, but it was actually pretty easy. Maybe it’s just designed to make us feel better about ourselves?

      Fascinating how this obsession with correct grammar follows some people around. On one hand, correct language is very easy to define, and on the other hand, language is just a worldwide riot of communication that is changing every day.

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