Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Word About Grammar

Today at literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog, there is an interesting discussion about grammar slip-ups.  Nathan asked his readers, "What are your favorite/least favorite malaprops, Spoonerisms, homonym errors, and/or other tips of the slongue or tpyos?"

Many commenters responded with passionate diatribes against a variety of language errors.  Here is the response I added to this discussion, slightly modified here:
I must admit, I'm a bit taken aback by the level of ire associated with some of these comments.

I have a Master's in English and I'm a college instructor of English. I'm also a professional editor. I think we take grammar too seriously.

I'm proficient in spotting and fixing grammar (and other writing) problems, so I use that gift to help others. (I actually enjoy it - guess I'm just an academia nut. Ba dum bum.)

However, I don't think this gift makes me superior to the people I help. It's a gift; I didn't have to work hard to discern the difference between 'your' and 'you're'. The people who DO have to work hard at this and then finally master it are the ones to be admired.

Language rules are arbitrary and changeable. They simply constitute a code which is different for different communication situations. I tell my students this; they love it. They can then embrace learning grammar as simply learning a code for a certain kind of communication.

Grammar Nazism does not serve the learning of grammar. Quite the opposite.
I once had an excellent writing teacher who said, "The purpose of writing is to communicate clear ideas clearly."  Thanks to him and others, I have developed the ability to write clearly.  I have mastered the "rules" for different kinds of writing, from business writing to academic papers to grants.  This is why I offer my services to others.

However, I am not and never will be the Grammar Police.  Think of me as more of a grammar mechanic.  I won't judge your writing for its problems, but I will repair it and point you to the things you can do to keep it running smoothly.


  1. I particularly love your observation that you have a gift, and as such it is something for you to be grateful for rather than proud of.

    I can't help it, though: I still look for those rare sightings of the word "comprise" correctly used, and sigh at the rest. It's not tolerant of me, but I blame my dad. He really WAS a grammar nazi.

  2. I actually used to be a Grammar Nazi, and I'm still very much a stickler when it comes to important documents. However, teaching remedial-level college English students for eight years has taught me compassion toward the grammatically-challenged.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I never thought reading a blog about grammar would invoke such feelings of love in me, but it did! I am fascinated by people who are gramatically gifted and only dream of one day knowing exactly when to use a semicolon!

  5. Ah yes, the semicolon conundrum! I had a professor in grad school who HATED semicolons, and thought they should never be used.

    I rather like them myself.

    I'm more than pleased to know that feelings of love were invoked in you here - maybe I should call myself the Grammar Gandhi? :)

  6. I think grammar mechanic is an apt description; it points to your wish to fix things and be helpful, as opposed to simply sitting with a critical red pen, in judgment. (I've always been fond of semicolons, even if they don't add clarity.)

    Fun post.

  7. This is so funny! I woke up this morning thinking about semicolons and posting on this blog about them, and then here was your comment! You and I seem to be doing a little jig of synchronicity lately.

  8. I like your term 'grammar mechanic' Susan

    and while my slack online grammar may not point to it, my background includes being an editor and proofreader :)

    so it appears we have a couple of things in common

  9. Thanks! Yes, my grammar too tends to be more relaxed online, because it's a different "code," especially on Facebook, where I rarely capitalize. I think of it as grammatical creativity.

    What kind of editing have you done? I'm still doing editing and professional writing, although I haven't tended this blog recently - primarily because I have more than enough work locally, which is great!

  10. Great that you've got plenty of work.
    When I lived in the city I was magazine editor for newsmags, lifestyle and trade mags, and a proofreader for Australia's leading information services provider.
    There's not many industry specific opportunities out in the rural countryside.
    I have kept my hand in via roles that include designing and editing corporate newsletters or marketing collateral. I also still write freelance, with random articles printed in various mags.

  11. I appreciate your perspective on this. I have been both the haughty judge of poor grammar, as well as the judged. I remember being so judgemental with other after my family moved to Arkansas from California as a teenager. Then when I was older I found myself in Egypt struggling to learn Arabic, I was humbled. I realized that ones command of a language is not neccisarily indicative of ones intelligence, or character. I sounded dumb when I spoke arabic, I knew it, just like english second language speakers with heavy accents and poor grammar sound dumb. So it is because of this experience that I dont get hung up on grammar. The only time that becomes and issue for me is when Im writing a paper.

  12. I moved from Canada to Louisiana as a teenager, so I totally understand being in that judgmental place. And in a funny way, that experience was also sort of like being in Egypt was for you, because Canadian English is so different from Southern American English that people often couldn't understand me. In fact, they sometimes asked me how long it had taken me to learn English.