Confessions of a Reformed Grammar Legalist
People get pretty worked up about grammar. I know this because I used to be one of them. I’m happy to report, however, that I am mellowing with age. Maybe the tone and content of this blog over the past few months has made that clear. I sure hope so, because as I have softened my prescriptivist stance, I’ve been able to see how silly grammar people can be sometimes.
People fight about punctuation, for crying out loud. Heated debates that sometimes devolve into personal attacks have taken place over Oxford University’s recent position change on the serial (or Oxford) comma. I make my living teaching young people to write well, but I frankly just don’t care that much about whether you include a comma before the word and in a list. I’m an opinionated guy — ask anyone who knows me. I like the verbal fistfight as much as anyone. Let’s talk politics, education, economics, literature, film, sports, even theology. But punctuation? It’s just not worth the mental energy as far as I’m concerned.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that language matters. Words mean something. How we use and interpret language to create and derive meaning is supremely important. It matters to me, for example, what the Constitution really says. It matters how politicians parse their sentences. The differences between a David Koresh, a Fred Phelps, a Billy Graham, or a Mother Teresa come down to how they interpret the language of the Bible. It’s important to get that right.
But, as I’ve written before, we must accept that language is a fluid, evolving thing. The meanings of words change. We might not like that awesome isn’t so awesome anymore. Or that we can’t express mere happiness with the word gay anymore. Or that google, dvr, and Facebook are commonly used as verbs. We can moan and wail about the waning beauty and precision of our language, but it won’t stop. It’s never stopped. Languages always morph and grow. I’ve just found that it’s a lot more fun to ride the language train than try to slow it down.
I’ve learned not only to accept that the rules of grammar and usage change over time, but to appreciate those changes. Some things I don’t like (e.g., I think the word literal should always be used literally), but other changes I think are for the better (e.g., beginning sentences with conjunctions and ending them with prepositions just makes sense sometimes), and I’m just indifferent about others (e.g., if shall and whom disappear will we really miss them?)
As a blog host and writing program founder I often hear from people who are incensed, irate, or fit to be tied over some common misuse of the language. Idioms they deem displays of the direst ignorance make them crazy, boil their blood, and drive them to distraction. If you are one of those people, take some advice from a former grammar legalist: Relax. There’s plenty of far more troubling things to worry about.