Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar

When my father is interacting with people who find out he is a doctor, he often hears, “I have a medical question for you.” My sister, an accountant gets, “I have a tax question for you.” I feel particularly bad for my brother-in-law, who is both an accountant and a lawyer and who probably not only has to field general tax and legal questions but the questions of people who are in legal trouble because of their taxes. But when people find out I’m an English teacher, they often say, “I have a grammar question for you.” Asking someone to give you free professional advice when they are not at work and just looking to enjoy casual conversation with their dry martini is, of course, total etiquette fail. But it gets even douchier when people want to tell me all about how they go ahead and correct other people’s grammar every chance they get. This happened with my new dentist, who, while digging around in my mouth with metal objects, regaled me with stories about how he calls people out–family members, friends, patients, probably also panhandlers with poorly copyedited signs–for using adverbs incorrectly. Adverb usage: apparently one of the Big Problems Today, along with oil rigs asploding in the Gulf and poverty and such. It’s like these people are part of a Douchebag Club and think they have recognized me as one of their own. To which I have this to say: I am not. I am not, in fact, proud of you for being a dick to the people around you. Now don’t get me wrong, I am sort of a dick sometimes, but this is one area of dickery I just don’t touch. I equate it to going around at a party criticizing everyone’s food and drink selection. No one likes that guy. We edge away from him and talk about him behind his back. Like food selections at parties, speech patterns are both a function of personal taste and what’s available to us. Not only is grammar correcting just plain rude, it’s soaked in classism, regional chauvinism, and privilege.

It bothers me that some people think that this is what I do all day: copyedit my student’s documents and then take my work home with me by copyediting conversations with family and friends. That sounds joyless. And stupid. What I really do is research American literature and religion because I find it fascinating. Then I teach my students about literature and religion and try to find ways to make it fascinating for them. I also attempt to teach them to do fabulous things with words, things that are full of joy, as well as insight, nuance, and gravitas. In short, I love my job, but grammar has precious little to do with it (“it” being both my job and why I like it).

Then I work a shift in the undergraduate Writing Center and remember why people think this. Students come in, red-eyed and care-worn saying stuff like, “I just want to talk about the grammar. My professor takes off a point for every grammar mistake, so it’s really important that you look at the grammar. Grammar grammar grammar.” That’s when I want to put my head down on the desk, or maybe set fire to it so they’ll have to evacuate the building and I can avoid talking about grammar. I realize that these professors still exist, and I kind of think they are akin to the devil. One came to talk to the Writing Center staff a couple of years ago. She was from the business school, not the English department, mind you. After she basically insulted us for half an hour by implying that this room full of people holding Master’s degrees were essentially there to corral wayward commas and semi-colons and intoning that–unlike writing in English–writing in Business is supposed to be clear and readable, a friend of mine said, “So basically my entire job is grammar and obfuscation.” So frantic business students pour into the Writing Center so that people with Master’s degrees can catch whatever got through Word Grammar Check. Get me some lighter fluid and a match. (I am being FIGURATIVE here, kids. I do not condone arson.)

This explains another reaction I often get from people who know I’m an English teacher: they tell me all about the horrible, loathsome teacher they had in high school and college who perpetually handed back papers covered in blood red ink and killed their confidence when it came to writing. Many of these people are old, lots of them quite successful in fields like engineering and computer science and medicine. So, I kind of want to say to them, “Ummmm, get over it already? Why do you feel the need to unload this decades-old experience on me?” But for real, some people have deep psychic scars associated with their high school or college English teachers, teachers who made them hate their native language thanks to a promiscuous red pen and a vendetta against split infinitives.

A big part of the problem, in my estimation is that we as a society–even the most overeducated among us–have a poor grasp of what grammar actually is and what role it plays in writing. So here it is: grammar is a set of standards that we as a linguistic group have agreed upon to help us understand one another. Those rules tend to be culturally and regionally specific and change over time. No one descended from a mountain with two stone tablets reading, “Though shalt not use a preposition at the end of a sentence.” Adhering to grammar guidelines is about making sure that you are understood. It’s also about self-presentation, but it’s not about adhering to some sort of moral code.

Grammar too often gets confused with what it is designed to produce, which is fluency. Fluency here is defined not just by your ability to speak or write in a particular language but by a certain facility with that language, the ability to make words do exactly what you want them to do, to make them sparkle and titillate and inspire, to not just say the right thing but to sound good doing it. And that may or may not include utilizing proper grammar. Often fluency means learning precisely when to follow the rules and when to break them, to tune the correctness of your usage to the expectations of your audience (idiom!). Or to use non-standard constructions for effect (Iseewhatyoudidthere). Fluency is the ability to say exactly what you mean exactly how you want, which is harder than it sounds.

Story time: yesterday, while I was in the midst of drafting this post, I had an encounter much like what I describe above, in which an acquaintance discovered that two people in our social gathering (myself and a middle school teacher) taught English. Suddenly, he was frothing at the mouth about how people who say “irregardless” are awful, horrible human beings. Apparently someone killed his cat while saying “irregardless” alot. To my surprise, other non-English teaching members of the group piled on, ranting on and on about the split infinitive in “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and how it peed in their breakfast cereal. Amused by the coincidence, I casually mentioned that I was writing a blog post about how much I don’t give a flying frack about whether or not people use proper grammar in casual conversation. The instigator then backtracked and said that it really wasn’t grammar that bothered him so much as people not saying precisely what they mean. Ok, I thought, that’s valid.

But now I’m having one of those moments in which, twelve hours after the fact, I’ve managed to formulate the perfect response, so I wish I had this guy’s phone number so that I could call him at work or something and say, “Then why didn’t you say exactly what you meant?!” That would show ’em. Because here’s the thing: when we talk about problems with grammar, we’re often actually talking about problems with clarity or, to use the term I suggested before, fluency. I see this a lot in the Writing Center, when students bring in papers with negative grades and lots and lots of red ink. Instructors (often TA’s but sometimes professors too) will just write “grammar” in the margin next to an awkward or unclear sentence, sometimes next to a grammatically correct sentence. That’s the problem with talking about grammar all the time. Grammar is only one of the tools in a pretty big toolbox that helps us express ourselves effectively. And grammatical correctness is never a guarantee that we have done so. Academic writers (even writers with tenure) are often guilty of this. Yesterday, Amanda Hess of The Sexist, one of my favoritest bloggers, posted the first page of God’s Brain, a book written by the founder of “Male Studies,” who is named, I kid you not Lionel Tiger. You can’t make this stuff up. Here is how it starts:

The first impulse animating this book was simple if enchanted puzzlement about the remarkable difference between what the brain created about religion and the vast and long-lasting social systems that were the result. This is obviously an extraordinarily important aspect of human behavior that has to be understood as skillfully as possible. But we were troubled because so much of the public dialogue on the matter was beset by acidulous hostility from those opposed to religion on one loud and clamorous side. On the other, there was a self-confident certainty of both people and even governments about the need to quarantine the modes of faith from questions and from doubt.

Oh, you want me to stop now? There are four lights, you say? Okay, okay. That paragraph is technically grammatically correct, but it is excruciating to read because it is committing a number of other stylistic sins that have nothing to do with subject-verb agreement or the placement of punctuation.

1) Wordiness: Tiger is piling modifiers upon modifiers upon modifiers here. It’s like the man swallowed a Thesaurus and vomited it onto the page or like he was getting paid by the word and thus needed an adverb to modify every adjective. And I’m not just talking about “acidulous hostility” here. (Though in all seriousness, how great is that?) No, there are a lot of super boring modifiers in here too: “extraordinarily important” (Oh, well if it’s just important then I don’t care. Wait, extraordinarily important, you say?), “as skillfully as possible” (Can you understand something skillfully? I don’t think so.). He’s also redundant. Why does something have to be both “loud” AND “clamorous,” when clamorous by itself says exactly what he needs it to and is a perfectly interesting word on its own? Why is his “puzzlement” both “simple” and “enchanted?” Doesn’t “enchanted” on its own express the ironic bemusement he is trying to convey?

2) Cadence: Try reading this thing out loud. I am of the belief that reading is a kind of syn-aesthetic experience, that what we read with our eyes ought to be appealing to our ears as well. This is not. Cadence is what the kids these days would call “flow.” It’s what gives prose the quality of poetry or music. Ever read something that made you go, “Wow, that’s really beautiful?” Chances are it had something to do with how the writer establishes a rhythm and uses the tonal quality of words to enliven her point. The above paragraph is like a linguistic abortion. Instead of flowing, everything feels choppy, stopped short, disconnected. Instead of building on one another, these short modifying phrases actually stop the progress of the sentence and sort of bend it backward in some kind of syntactical contortion. You sort of lose track of where the sentence was going before it detoured from “simple” into “if enchanted” before finally arriving at “puzzlement.”

3) Parallel Structure: Tiger shuns parallel structure, so in addition to not sounding very pretty, relationships between ideas are lost. At the end of this paragraph, Tiger is presenting two opposing sides in a controversy and talking about how extremism on both sides stymies productive dialogue. Here’s how that starts: “But we were troubled because so much of the public dialogue on the matter was beset by acidulous hostility from those opposed to religions on one loud and clamorous side. On the other,” Okay wait. On the other what? Oooooooh, side. I see. The first few times I read this, the fact that he was comparing two sides of an issue sort of floated past me unnoticed. That first sentence suggests that public dialogue is being shut down due to angry, angry people who hate religion. The fact that this represents only one side of an entrenched debate is buried in there in another sea of adjectives. Thus, by the time we get to “On the other,” we’ve sort of missed the antecedent of “other.” In Ancient Greek, there is a word that essentially means “one the one hand…on the other hand” that has to be used in specific syntactical ways. This is so that each element in the comparison is given equal grammatical weight and the relationship between them is clear. Also, it just sounds better if you do it like that.

4) Clarity: What the hell is Tiger even saying? I recognize that academic prose is necessarily dense. We’re talking about complex theoretical ideas here. My point in this little digression isn’t that Tiger is using too many big words. I am totally going to use “acidulous hostility” in my next conference paper. It isn’t even that he is resorting to professional jargon. The problem is that he is allowing the overuse of mundane language to make the reading experience torturous. The stuff I just mentioned pulls us out of the reading experience and by focusing our energies on decoding the sentence rather than contemplating the ideas. Remember Pig Latin? It wasn’t at all difficult to translate, but your brain still had to work a little harder than usual to figure out what the precise words were, so it took you longer than usual to arrive at what the person meant. That’s sort of what this paragraph is like.

And what are the ideas? Carping on about how someone said something is often a way of refusing to engage with what they actually did say. It’s a derailing tactic that gets leveled against feminist bloggers all of the time. I won’t do that here.* Tiger is talking about the cognitive theory of religion, which states that religion is at least partially a product of neurological processes, a psychological “need” for faith that is programmed into our very DNA. It’s a fascinating theory. I actually work for a professor right now who does this stuff. In this first paragraph, Tiger is saying that it is difficult to separate religion as a product of our brains from the social institutions that influence the way religion is practiced. He is saying that broaching this topic is challenging because people’s opinions on religion, even in academia, tend to be very polarized. There are those who do not want us to talk about religion at all because they sort of wish it would go away, and there are those who want religion to be immune from academic scrutiny, which might call the truth claims of religion into question. He goes on to say, in the next paragraph, that many scholars and even academic presses shrink from engaging with or publishing this sort of work because of the controversy it engenders. Now that’s something I might be interested in reading about, if the prose weren’t so weighed down with stuff that usually gets excised from shitty first drafts.

As one of Hess’s commenters suggests, some of the reviews on Amazon are telling. While the book has a few positive reviews, the negative ones cite the ponderousness of the writing as a serious disappointment. In other words, they were all excited about reading this book until they encountered “enchanted puzzlement.” I can’t say much for Tiger’s theories on gender, but he seems to have important things to say in the field of the scientific study of religion. And that’s what makes this infuriating: not that Tiger has committed some atrocity upon the English language but that provocative ideas have been lost in a sea of extraneous fourth grade adjectives like “extraordinarily” and “loud.” It’s just all so unnecessary. And that, for me, is far more aggravating than “to boldly go” or “irregardless.” At least those words fairly effectively capture what the speaker means to say.

*In all fairness, Hess isn’t doing that either. She has repeatedly engaged with the way “Male Studies” has been framed as an answer to “Men’s Studies,” and if attacking his style is sort of ad hominem, then it’s merely in response to Tiger’s ad hominem accusation that she just hasn’t read his stuff. One shouldn’t have to read the entire body of someone’s scholarship, especially for someone as prolific as Lionel Tiger (still a funny name) in order to be qualified to critique their ideas on one particular subject.

62 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar

    1. This piece is absolutely brilliant. However, I would like to see one about another sort of “language professor douchery” of which I am prolifically guilty: Correcting other people’s SPELLING. Might there be such a piece available?

  1. Thank you so much!

    You cannot imagine how much it irks me, as a native speaker of German with a degree in English linguistics, when people come up to me only to go off on a rant about how ‘rotten’ the German tongue has become, usually by trying to hold me personally accountable for the influx of (pseudo-)English loanwords and the perceived demise of our ‘grammar’, or – better yet – demand that I, qua my academic authority*, declare regional or social varieties ‘improper’ and agree with them that they are the true preservers of the long-forgotten craft of word-smithery.

    (*Which I have just entirely disproven, given this convoluted sentence above.)

    Oh, and if you think Lionel Tiger is being unreadable and deliberately obtuse, try German academic writing. 😉 The passive voice plays a far too active part for my taste – it’s almost as if the authors got sick with the commandment “Thou shalt not mention thyself or even hint at a text’s human origin” and eventually vomited auxiliaries all over their draft, but felt altogether too ill and depersonalised to even care about cleaning up their mess.

    Sorry. Rant over. I love your blog.

    1. @Hannah

      Most of the time it seems like Grammar Douchery is mostly about making that person feel smart and superior to other people. But every once in a while, you do get the folks who seem really, really threatened by non-standard grammar and the “degradation of language.”

      And let’s take a second to think about why that might be? Why is it that some people feel threatened by people who speak differently from themselves or from the dominant social group? Why is it that some seem to sincerely believe that certain people who grow up speaking a different idiom are inherently dumber or less culturally pure?

      Talking about grammar and the “correct” way to speak often seems to be a more socially acceptable way of expressing classism and xenophobia. The reason I like “fluency” is that fluency suggests cultural situated-ness. My partner and I hosted some high school exchange teachers from Germany last year and quickly realized that knowing the mechanics of another language does not equal fluency, that idiom and slang and knowing when and where to use non-standard constructions is a part of fluency but is also very dependent on context.

      1. @ ladysquires

        I agree… with regards to non-native speakers, fluency is whole other issue. I don’t claim to be one, either, but it always amuses me that many Germans are convinced that fluency is the same as stringing words into a grammatically (halfway) correct sentence without stammering like an imbecile (that would be me when I speak French). And while I can somewhat understand a foreigner’s need for ‘clear rules’ on how to use words or grammatical constructions, it really pisses me off if they also engage in ‘grammar douchery’ (love that word) when natives ignore these very same rules they so painstakingly had to memorize. (We once had an Nigerian guest professor and a German fellow student intimated that his English sucked because she found him hard to understand. What can I say, life is hard.)

        Which leads us right to the REAL grammar douchery: IMHO, grammar douchebags are people who treat their own language as if it were foreign to them. They subject themselves – and thus, unfortunately, others – to its imaginary demands instead of subjecting the language to theirs –which is really what language is for, but then again these are usually the very same people who sue their neighbours for growing the ‘wrong’ trees in their backyards (I’m not kidding, ‘Kleingärtner’ are serious people).

        I don’t know much about the American grammar police, but here they usually bemoan a loss of discipline, manners and morals, and proclaim themselves judges on behalf of some weird aesthetic standards. A closer look reveals that what is really the matter is their fear of the unknown, and the unknown, as we all know, is uncontrollable, immoral, ugly. Interestingly, the unknown is threatening because it is deemed inferior but might just be powerful enough to become a threat, e.g. if it exerts an uncanny amount of cultural ‘pull’.

        This is also why I think German reactions to anglicisms are quite fascinating: They very clearly show that it’s all about attitude. Some people still foster hopes for ‘the greatness of the German mind’ (Hint: Goethe is dead, get over it already) and fear that “America is going to wipe out our culture”, thus accordingly despising the influx of English. In short: They’re feeling left behind, while the more ‘globalised’ segments of society effortlessly navigate a world of new technology, politics, etc and embrace English as ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ (you see, we don’t even use German if we think something’s rad!). But even this ultimately leads to further grammar douchery! Usually, types such as myself (college educated with middle-to-high proficiency in English) insist that ‘English is to be taken serious’ and thus pronounced and declined/conjugated correctly (a very “German” attitude if there ever was one), while others get really playful with it and are thus perceived as disrespecting both English and German. (I’m sitting on the fence here, really. A strong German accent makes my toenails curl, but only if combined with the Dunning-Kruger effect and insufferable smugness.)

        So, I gather there is a thread running through my (overly lengthy) argument. In fact, sociolinguists have written extensively about it (shoot me, I don’t have my books on me, so I can’t give credit where credit is due): Language indicates belonging v. not-belonging – to an elite, a certain ethnicity, trade, gender, age-group, etc. – and I dare say that people who feel particularly threatened by ‘improper’ usage are those who also feel somehow threatened in their identity or status. After all, if you constantly have to guard yourself and others (yourself from slipping, others from climbing to your level), it’s really hard to be playful or relaxed or, God forbid, lenient.

        It’s not the split infinitive that’s killing them, it’s the thought that a) they might use one themselves, or that b) no one else actually gives a damn because split infinitives work perfectly fine!. If in doubt, Hamlet’s Gertrude is right: “The lady [or lord] doth protest too much, methinks.”

        (Ugh, and… next time I’m writing a thesis, I’ll set up my own blog first. I promise.)

      2. Love this:

        They subject themselves – and thus, unfortunately, others – to its imaginary demands instead of subjecting the language to theirs –which is really what language is for

        And this:

        Language indicates belonging v. not-belonging – to an elite, a certain ethnicity, trade, gender, age-group, etc. – and I dare say that people who feel particularly threatened by ‘improper’ usage are those who also feel somehow threatened in their identity or status. After all, if you constantly have to guard yourself and others (yourself from slipping, others from climbing to your level), it’s really hard to be playful or relaxed or, God forbid, lenient.

        And as something of a speechifying windbag myself, I endorse long comments here. I do not ascribe to the theory that all blog posts have to be short, pithy, and timely, and feel the same way about comments.

      3. Ah, the relief. I don’t want to hi-jack your comment section (ok, not entirely…). 🙂

      4. I’m reminded of someone who got on my nerves on usenet because they were an extreme prescriptivist. (I don’t remember that person’s name, and I’m not even giving you a gender in case you want to find out who it might have been.)

        The thing is, they’d worked their way up from lower class, and I think part of it was learning how to write formally.

        I grew up with non-stigmatized English. I don’t have to make an effort to talk and write the way I do.

        In other words, I was undercutting what that person experienced as a crucial tool for making their life better.

        I suspect I made the newsgroup not fun for that person by arguing about whether there was such a thing as absolute rules for correct English, and I wonder if I was unkind.

    2. OH. Lol. German academic writing. I am doing an Honours degree in Linguistics (native English speaker) and have a degree in German… haven’t used my German for a while and now have to start reading German academic writing again… horrible. I suppose you’ve read Fontane? I found his sentences horrendously long, haha. Very hard for a foreign speaker.

      Prost for the article, by the way. “Prescriptive linguistics” is the catch-phrase I was taught 🙂

  2. I came here through Mim’s blog and am so glad she shared the link. I love this post!

    However, while I don’t feel it’s right to edit personal communications, I will admit that I call out errors on corporate, government or other professional documentation. And then I tell them that they could avoid future embarrassment by hiring me to do copy editing. 😉

    1. @Mary

      My job at one point was writing and editing corporate communications, and I think that it is absolutely appropriate to strive for professionalism in those cases. It’s just lazy not to be. I recently sent an inquiry to an academic publisher trying to get permission for my boss to republish a piece of an article in his new book. I needed written permission that I could hand to the editor, and I was sent an email that literally looked like the guy had pounded his Blackberry with his fist. There were typos in every other word. I was actually really disgusted by that. It screamed disrespect and disregard for something that was very much part of his job.

      Context is really important. I just get irritated by people who expect me to be outraged by People Who Don’t Use Proper Grammar as a matter of principle that extends to every part of my life as well as educators who privilege accurate grammar above much bigger concerns in student writing, like having a good argument (I’ve seen instructors rigorously copy edit entire sections that just need to be scrapped, which is such a waste of energy and confuses and discourages the student). I’m planning a post on how I comment on papers that will hopefully address that more thoroughly.

  3. Okay, this won my heart. Speaking as a hopefully-graduating-in-December English -and- Economics (kinda; International Studies, emphasis on Economics, Chinese and Japanese) major, I can definitely attest to the business colleges being far more strict on grammar/tone/diction than even their colleagues in the English department were.

    Case in point: A group paper assigned to my Environmental Econ class, in which the four members of my group just did our parts independently and submitted it because only two of us finished it ahead of time (the other two sections were received literally an hour or so before it was due). Of the four, the grammar-plagued and tone-plagued sections were definitely marked down the most (despite probably having the most content and information), whereas mine was only marginally marked down (tone issues – I cannot manage formal writing for the life of me). Only one person’s submission exited unscathed, and that was the other person who got their stuff to me on time.

    This is the sort of thing I honestly never encountered in the English department, or even really in any other classes I took other than my hard science courses (in high school, mind), and it threw me for a loop. I wasn’t offended that she critiqued my tone, more just surprised it was happening in an Econ class – and hadn’t happened before that in college.

    I also get the people who expect me to be very critical of other people’s grammar. I -use- “irregardless” on occasion; it simply sounds better to my ear than “regardless” in some contexts. I split infinitives way too often to count… list goes on and on. I learned English by reading and by listening; I honestly had very little writing or speaking practice, and so by default I think I tend toward a somewhat skewed formal/informal twist.

    I guess my closing note is that one amazing contrast to the whole grammar/language elitism that goes on in the USA, at least, is China; when I studied there for a year, the reaction was almost the absolute opposite. You could speak a few words of Chinese and people would almost trip over themselves to try and help, if you were earnestly trying on your end. It was honestly refreshing to be able to work on a language like that (and I’m sure some of them laughed behind my back, I heard the commentary and my listening’s far better than my speaking. But hey, they helped me out, I provide some entertainment by being a fool. Mutually beneficial, as far as I’m concerned, and they didn’t mean any harm either~) and the willingness of native speakers to -work- with others instead of shunning them for faults in their speech was honestly refreshing from a lot of what I get back here in the States.

    (Entirety of China’s not all like that – I was speaking Mandarin, and the general gist I got is that in Shanghai that causes issues – they’re very proud of their local tongue. But in Beijing, at least, they were quite willing to help.)

    Ramble over. ‘pologies for that, but the perspective difference occurred to me as I was typing and I figured it might be an interesting diversion to someone.

  4. All right, I’ll admit it: I am an enemy of “irregardless”. It makes me cringe for a number of reasons, first of all because it is eroding the already tenuous position in public discourse of a much more beautiful word—irrespective! Music to my ears—second because it adds an unnecessary and counterproductive particle onto what was a perfectly good word before that ‘ir’ came along, and lastly because it betokens a speaker who probably doesn’t know where their words are coming from.*

    And that makes me sad. I strive to use language as thoughtfully as possible, and I am always just a little bit disappointed when I stumble across a communicator like your Lionel who exhibits strong indications of thoughtlessness.

    In all other respects, however, this post clarifies for me a lot of my fledgling ideas about the meaning of correctness, for which effect I appreciate it most sincerely.* Plus it cracked me up a few times, and I can always use a giggle or two.

    *These sentences are both trying too hard, aren’t they.

  5. The folks at Language Log would certanly agree with you. Search the blog on “prescriptivist” or “peevology” for a sample.

    Also, my all-time favorite illustration of Parallel Structure is spoken by Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest:”

    “What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure.”

    Ain’t that a honey?

  6. Wow. You just put your finger right on a bunch of my experiences, particularly the part about being a lightning rod for people’s frustrations with language. Fabulous post.

  7. I reviewed God’s Brain for my local paper, which included this:

    We sometimes compliment a book by saying that “the sentences fly off the page”. In this book, sentences frequently need to be pried off:

    “It is necessary to be aware of the different gradations of color in sacred costume and what their wearers mean to the ideas of religion’s meaning.”

    A stray clunker that made it past an editor under time pressure? Try this then:

    “The percentages of informal rules that are often large do not unambiguously and agreeably have their source in religion.”

    I found several other reviews, and none of them called attention to the book’s awful writing, making me wonder if I was being a pedant.

    Thanks for your post!

    On a different matter, about 20 years ago, I was called out on my use of irregardless, and I’m actually glad I was!

    If I may end with an ever-so-gentle reprimand: because writing is hard, it’s helpful (and encouraging to first-timers) to indicate whether (and which) markup tags are supported by your blog comment software. Also helpful is a preview mechanism, but I recognize that this may not entirely be in your hands.

    1. Neil, thank you for your comment. This is a pretty basic wordpress.com blog (i.e. NOT self-hosted, with NO upgrades at this point) with limited customization, though I am steadily learning more and more about the features available. I am not sure if it’s possible to implement either of your suggestions, though I can look into it.

      1. In case you weren’t sure, I’ve established with my prior comment that blockquote and italic (in angle brackets) are not supported. Kind of surprising “in this day and age”, but, whatever, keep up the good work.

  8. Moving from an MFA in poetry into working on a PhD in Rhetoric & Composition (talk about questions/comments I get on _that_), most of the comments I get relate _not_ to questions about poetry – or – rhetoric (probably because everyone seems to be afraid of that word) – but about how I could possibly be an adequate rhet/comp instructor having majored in poetry because of the ‘grammatical license allowed in poetry’.

    Working as a tutor in university writing centers for over five years, I have long been a supporter of helping international students with grammar issues – if only to help them sleep at night (due to red-pen professors). I often become incensed at the power these professors have that can (and does) so easily invalidate the intelligence and motivation of these students. I am currently reading a book, written by international professionals, who seem to believe they need to use commas and yet don’t seem to have any idea where they ‘belong,’ and so insert them at random… which complicates my enjoyment of the content.

    Your post is as refreshing as it is needed. Thank you…

    1. To steal a metaphor from computer science: “Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send.” [Jon Postel]

      It is important that you should ensure that you speak as fluently as possible, and grammar can be an important part of that. But equally important is accepting the (percieved) faults of other people and being able to go “I see what you mean” or, potentially “I don’t understand, what do you mean by *that*?”.

      In terms of papers being returned with red scrawl, the worst scrawl to recieve must be “Yuk.” Apparently – so I am told – this indicates that whilst there is nothing factually wrong with the text, and it may even be grammatically correct, it is tortuously difficult to understand. However, it is also important for the professors writing this to point out what they mean by “Yuk.”

  9. Some good points here. I used to write stupidly complex sentences all the time. I knew what I meant, and I said exactly what I meant. I even clarified what I meant to the point that it would be difficult to suggest I had said anything other then what I meant. Problem was, it was super hard to figure out what I was saying!

    I had an English teacher in college who I had a crush on. Maybe that helped me try to look at it from another point of view and to understand she thought of my writing. She loved my style, except for that sentence problem, and when she broke up with her boyfriend a few years after she want asking about me :). Anyway, I learned from her that readability was important. People are more interested in listening to what you have to say if it isn’t too much work for them.

    I been writing a story lately. Making it easy to decode has been one of the things I am striving for. It makes the narration fun.

  10. I am not a college grad. I am not a smarty pants, and even I can grasp the complete rudeness of being a grammar douche! As long as the person I am speaking/typing to, can understand me, that what does it matter? People use it as an argument nowadays online, to make someone elses argument invalid. “you spelled ‘poo’ wrong, and you forgot your adverb, therefore, you are an idiot and your argument is invalid!!”

    lol, anyway, I love this post…randomly found it.

  11. Way to go on advocating descriptive grammar and not prescriptive grammar! For the sake of debate, I’d like to point out that “flow”/cadence is theoretically subjective, and that insisting there is any better or worse way of using it might be hypocritical in a post about valuing what people have to say rather than how they say it. 😉 If I’m out of line and there is literature on the standards used to judge cadence, please link me!! I will agree that Tiger’s stylistic flow isn’t to my taste, but that’s just me (and you)…

    Also, can you add a Twitter widget? The first thing I wanted to do was tweet this, but there was no one-step way to do it! 😛 A Facebook one would probably serve your readers well too! I speak in their interest, not mine, since I dislike Facebook and don’t have one haha.

  12. I was one of those people for quite a while. Man I thought I was special.

    I later realized I was being that grammar “douche” you described and amended myself.

    Now I could care less, and I have great conversations where I just insult people on a general level!

    Except for improper use of plurals… just can’t let those ones slide.


  13. Very ‘Stephen Fry’ of you! Reading about complaining about people who correct others for their snobbery of language is cliché, plain and simple. Sure they are many who use this ‘I know how to speak / write better than you’ as a theoretical rung they have stepped up the evolutionary ladder, but who cares?

    Speaking of etiquette, asking a doctor / accountant / lawyer for a quick tidbit of information they would know due to their profession is hardly a ‘fail’. Knowledge is to be shared. Obviously you’re not going to ask a doctor in their spare time to look at the funny bumps which have occurred on your willy since taking home a ‘beautiful’ lady you picked up at the local. However what we do for a living makes up a significant part of who we are. There are 24hrs in a day and 7 days a week, giving 168hrs a week, of those we spend 40hrs hours working. If you find it offensive to answer a ‘grammar’ question, maybe you are in the wrong profession?

    Understandably there will be pedants who will not accept anything but proper English for an assignment and why the hell shouldn’t they? They set the work and want it completed to their standards. Do you tell your boss how he / she wants you to complete the work they have given you?

    We humans like people like ourselves, to talk down to those who enjoy ridiculing someone for their use of language makes you no better than the ridiculer. Would you throw a racial taunt because one was thrown at you first?

    1. I believe the point the author is trying to make is that we are not simply our professions. There is a bit more to us than the 40-odd hours of the 168 a week we have, by that measure we are only (roughly) 1/4 work, 1/4 sleep, and 1/2 whateverelsewedo/are/have.

      I firmly grasp what you mean in that there are instances where it is okay to field those questions, but there are times and places where it is actually inappropriate — such as a funeral, or a perhaps that local [bar] after an obviously long day if you one is there on a weekday/work night.

      Aside from that, it does not appear that the author here is shoving her opinion down your throat in some aggressive manner. Instead, she uses some witty quips to attack what she proposes is poor social etiquette. She also supports her claims by drawing a distinct line between grammar and what she calls fluency.

      Finally, your last paragraph simple states to me that you simply do not get it. Your statement includes the fact that author is admonishing those who ENJOY ridiculing others. There is no statement of symbiotic enjoyment, rather the author is bothered by that very fact and more. Your analogous question does not correlate to the conversation or what you state, but mine will. Would you get mad at someone for attempting to stop a bully?

  14. I am in total agreement about Lionel Tiger’s purple prose. I often like his points in a discussion even less than his prose. Since you mentioned that you think this is a funny name I can’t resist mentioning that he once collaborated with Robin Fox!

  15. People who correct other people’s grammar get under my skin too…it’s purely self-serving and even more disgustingly so because they think they are getting away with something by trying to hide behind the mask of helping to “improve” people. People have to cling to the idea of language as being nothing more than a set of iron-clad rules so they can trot out the few of those rules they can remember from high school at every opportunity until the end of time in order to make themselves looks smarter by disparaging others’ abilities; it has the opposite of the intended effect and just plays up their ignorance.

    Thank you for making this point, and doing it so eloquently. 🙂

  16. I just went thru a tough time with a undercover grammar Nazi . It seems grammar was an issue when things got serious ( after six months ). Before that I didn’t hear one correction but, she had some issues she was working thru.

    I work in the trades and I never went to college but, I always treated people the best that I could.

    My girlfriend ( we broke up two months ago )at the time would put me down because of my grammar and It has left internal scars for me. I didn’t go to college and I kinda always felt inferrer in a way because school was a struggle for me. She thought I was an Idiot after finding out about my grammar.

    It hurt me really bad and at some points I felt suicidal. She would put me down and make me feel like a asshole. Eventually I was so careful with the way that i spoke. I felt retarded and she would make comments like “we all know you can’t speak well”. This is pretty painful. Is it worth it to put down someone… Or even someone you love? It’s funny she was a dentist too.

  17. Wonderful blog post. Elmore Leonard has his “Ten Rules of Writing,” and one of them is “If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go.”

  18. I agree about not correcting adults for using bad grammar just because it’s poor manners (although, working in an elementary school, this is one of my biggest frustrations because I think it’s a bad example for the kids). But I am still going to continue to make those kids say “How many books do I have checked out?” instead of what I usually hear, which is “How much books do I have checked out?”
    A few of them have learned it. I’ll never be able to combat the improper use of singular/plural and a million other trangressions from the staff that are constantly being reinforced. But I can do this one thing. They don’t seem to mind it, I’m very friendly with them. I finally just got sick of it and decided to make them say it right.

  19. I loved this! I have been really irritated lately by people being such pedants online. Unless the person’s writing is completely unreadable then there is no need to complain in an informal setting about misplaced commas and silly stuff like that. Honestly, language is all about evolving and conforming to new usages. But I just can’t get over how people use it to kind of “one-up” other people when they’re having arguments online. Just because grammar isn’t someone’s forte doesn’t mean everything else they say is invalid and automatically wrong. It’s so immature ugggh.

  20. Thank you! My husband used to correct my grammar and I have a friend who is an eng teacher and would do the same. I always thought they are so unaware of their privilege. Thank you!

  21. I came across this blog post when I was looking for a word or phrase to describe one of the grammatical nazi’s. For example, my sentence structure is something like “Dr. J, I do not intend to be [a] , but I believe you mean wary, not weary.” He implied we should be tired instead of cautious in regards to a discussion on philosophy. While the conversations by my peers are a bit boring at times, I do not believe he wrote what he intended, which brings me to my reasons for posting.

    1. I wanted to tell you that this post has reformed my natural tendency to attack the grammar, and instead seek clarification, which is what I desired in the first place. The story about your comeback twelve hours later questioning why the person did not say what they intended in the first place was so poignant to me I felt like Anton Ego from Ratatouille trying the rats meal. The face I have for other’s grammar warmed a bit, and there is now some color and expression where there was not before.

    For some reason, the notion that I am just being a jerk to my friends comes through when you say it, but not when they do. So, on behalf of the people in my life who put up with me, especially my wife, thank you for your bravery in writing.

    2. Does such a profound word exist for grammar jerks, like my[former]self?

    Again, thank you for your insight, and thanks in advance if you decide to respond to my question.

  22. At least those words fairly effectively capture what the speaker means to say.

    And that’s really the point, isn’t it? There are ungrammatical expression that are ambiguous because of poor grammar, and there are archaic rules no one cares about any more.

    Language can be precise without being beautiful, and beautiful without having meaning, but I don;t see how it can be meaningful without precision.

  23. Thank you so much for writing this! I am glad to see I am not the only English enthusiast who disapproves of the obsessive correction of others’ grammar. Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post similar to yours in which I express similar sentiments and hypothesize that people who engage in grammar nazism are control freaks and insecure of their intellectual prowess (http://larosenoire1984.blogspot.com/2012/07/grammar-nazism-pseudointellectualism.html).

    Though the blog was well received by most people who commented, recently a person by the pseudonym of G.M. has acquired the habit of commenting on that blogging, correcting even things that are considered part of our everyday idioms. (“You declared: ‘,y pursuit of wisdom…’ One cannot pursue “wisdom” one can only gain it. One can pursue information and knowledge to learn and by doing so “gains” wisdom. You also wrote: “ I “totally” agree. The filler intensifier “totally” is an incorrect redundancy. One can partially agree, but cannot totally agree.”).

    I find this kind of hypercorrectness quite amusing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s