Grammar Rules – But They’re Not Absolute

By Jay Menard

Why is it that we encourage everyone to experiment and seek out new boundaries — unless of course they’re putting pen to paper.

And why is that many of us for whom the written word is a passion are the worst offenders at stifling creativity and, well, being a pain in the ass.

Few people will look at a painting and say, “Yeah, I like it, but that colour in the corner is just wrong.” But there are those who will dismiss an entire argument because there’s a sentence that ends in a preposition. There are others who love nothing more than pointing out other people’s grammatical flaws.

That’s not cool or funny. It’s just obnoxious and counter-productive.

We all know people who are quick to jump on those who misuse its and it’s… Congrats, you caught the error. But does pointing it out say more about you or the person who made the error?

(There are those who refer to these people as Grammar Nazis… I tend to avoid that term because I don’t like playing cute with a group that actively attempted genocide. Words matter — and I worry about the long-term effect of diminishing the horror Nazi should evoke by making it a term of endearment. But that’s just me.)

We celebrate those who step outside of their frameworks. Jazz musicians are lauded for their innovation; artists are revered for expanding the existing paradigms… but in working with words we’re often criticized for not following strict – and, in some cases, outdated – language ‘laws.’

There are limits to my understanding. Spelling counts. And I’m not suggesting we engage in a linguistic free-for-all where there are no rules. But is the world truly going to hell because grocery stores don’t know the difference between less and fewer? As Stephen Fry states, it really doesn’t matter.

I loved the line in that aforementioned link, where Fry states that “It’s only ugly because you don’t like it.” Linguistically, we’ve become the archetypal parents, ruminating about how ‘today’s’ music isn’t as good in the old days.

It’s simply not true.

Language evolves. We have new ways to communicate that need to be respected. Today’s students are not bastardizing our language, but rather adding to it with new terms and methods of communication. The danger is not the ADDITION of these words, but rather the danger comes if we choose to restrict ourselves to this level of communication.

Personally, I hope we never get to the point where we reach lolspeak. The diversity and breadth of language is what helps us express, learn, and grow. There’s a great essay by Jean-Paul Desbiens discussing the advent of joual… a form of Quebecois slang. It references a 1959 Le Devoir column by Andre Laurendau. The word joual comes from the word “cheval” – or horse – and how it would be presented. And while the author shares how his students take pride in ‘inventing’ a new language, he laments the restrictive nature of it.

While his students question why they’d need to speak anything but joual as it’s the language all their friends speak, he states, “Of course joual speakers understand each other. But do you want to live your life among joual speakers? As long as you want merely to chat about sports and the weather, as long as you talk only such crap, joual does very well. For primitives, a primitive language is good enough; animals get along with a few grunts. But if you want to attain to human speech, joual is not sufficient.”

And the ultimate statement, “You can make do with a board and some whitewash if you want to paint a barn, but finer tools are necessary for the Mona Lisa.”

Language helps us communicate. A depth and breadth of language helps us communicate more. And I would go so far as to say understanding other languages helps us learn about each other, our beliefs and motivations, and culture.

Grammar has a place. It’s the foundation of our expression. But just as ballet is at the core of dance — allowing dancers the firm foundation from which they can grow, add, and push the art form’s boundaries, so too is grammar at the core of how we interact with each other.

But it is the jumping-off point, not the entirety of expression.

Is a James Brown scream in proper sentence format? Is Otis Redding’s plaintive, “you got to, try… na, na, na…. try a little tenderness” grammatically correct? No, but can you think of a better or more evocative way to communicate what they’re feeling at that time?

I’ll admit that when I text, I tend to use full sentences, proper punctuation and capitalization, and grammar. But I don’t judge those who don’t. In fact, I think I’m likely the moron in that discussion because modern communication in those types of formats is about speed. While I’m not a fan of using emoticons, in a flat communication medium where sentiment is often misunderstood, they can serve very positive purposes.

These are all techniques designed to convey emotion and intent in the absence of face-to-face understanding. And it’s something that those Prescriptive Grammarians fail to see — and stifle at every chance.

Here’s a common example:

“I just read this article that really peaked my interest. It really made me rethink what I believed…”

“Don’t you mean piqued?”

… conversation over.

Yes, your grammar point is made, but at what cost? The derailment of a greater conversation? Better learning and opportunities to share and grow? And, long-term, reticence on the part of the person sharing.

I have read this statement more times than I’d like. “I always feel nervous sending you an e-mail because I worry you’re picking apart the grammar.”

I’ve never corrected anyone’s grammar without them asking, but the assumption they have is that because I write, I’m judging their writing. Here’s the truth:

I don’t care about your grammar.

I care about mine. In my free time and personal life, I couldn’t care less if you spell every bloody word wrong. If you want to pay me to edit your copy, then I’ll change my mind. But one-on-one, I’m not judging anybody by his or her writing.

And that’s where Prescriptive Grammarians lose me. Being so focused on the minutiae, they miss the message. You wouldn’t ignore the beauty of a building because a single brick is mislaid, so why ignore the point of a message because its construction is not perfect?

We’re not perfect. More importantly, our language will never be perfect. It’s constantly evolving and changing. In fact, I used outdated terminology earlier in this piece where I said, “e-mail.” Convention has it as one word; I continue to cling to the “electronic” mail definition, requiring a hyphen. That’s me.

Look, I’m not suggesting we engage in a linguistic free for all, where all rules are abandoned and alphabet anarchy is the rule of the day. I believe we should try to learn and grow our language every day. I believe we should strive to write as well as we can, as often as we can. And I believe there’s a very real danger of limiting our ability to think by limiting our availability of words.

But if understanding each other is our true goal, shouldn’t we be a little more accepting of all forms of expression?

2 thoughts on “Grammar Rules – But They’re Not Absolute

    1. Paul Tucknott

      Great post – could not click like as I’m not a blogger. For the most part, I feel that grammar and spelling do not matter too much in a personal post in media like Twitter, but absolutely do if the account is a business or news agency. In my opinion, poor spelling and grammar reflect poorly on professional accounts. While I’m sure that The Elements of Style did not have Twitter in mind, there is nothing wrong with doing things right. Or correctly.


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