An Appeal for Some Grammar Humility

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My primary goals with this blog are education and inspiration.

I am a teacher and love to share what I know. I want readers to come away smarter about writing and language. And I want to share my passion as well. Words are exciting and provoking. I want readers to catch the fire also.

But over the years, I’ve developed a secondary goal for the blog: to fight grammar Naziism.

I didn’t realize until I started engaging people on posts here and on Facebook how prevalent grammar Naziism is. People get really worked up about grammar errors. People have pet peeves. They frequently use expressions like “this drives me crazy” “it makes me pull my hair out” “if I hear X one more time,” etc. Having been a high school English teacher, I can relate. I’m not above this by any means. I’ve written before about my reformation.

Here’s one good reason to temper one’s rage against the prevalence of grammar errors: it’s not humble.

Ignorance Isn’t a Crime

Most grammar errors stem from simple ignorance, not from indifference or rebellion. No speakers and writers make intentional grammar mistakes and most are embarrassed when the errors are pointed out. Maybe they should care more about grammatical correctness, but who am I to judge how much they should care about stuff? Perhaps they are spending all their caring on adopting orphans, feeding the homeless, or freeing the enslaved. Most of us should probably care more about that kind of thing and less about grammar.

Tu Quoque

And here’s the thing. We’re all ignorant about grammar. I consider myself something of an expert. I majored in English and education in college. I took linguistics courses. I’m in my third decade of teaching. But I am still learning. It was only recently that I learned about phrasal verbs, for example. It wasn’t long ago that I learned the real difference between hyphens and m-dashes. And it took years for me to let go of dozens of grammar rules that were really just myths: using fragments, ending with prepositions, splitting infinitives, and the like.

In other words, while I was lecturing people on one grammar error, I was most likely making a dozen more. That’s hypocrisy, folks. And if ignorance is a good excuse for me, it’s a good one for others too.

I can’t tell you how common it is for people in my social media circles to write scathing grammar critiques in comments rife with different kinds of errors.

Your obviously to dumb to know the difference between “their” and “they’re”!

Okay, that’s not a real example, but you get the idea. I see it often.

You Don’t Always Know What You Think You Know

The other way grammar arrogance (grammarrogance?) reveals itself is when people correct things that aren’t errors. I gave an example recently about people who correct those who say “I’ve seen,” thinking they are saying “I seen.” But there are all kinds of myths that grammar snobs cling to as gospel truth.

A writer isn’t incorrect when he chooses to write in sentence fragments. It’s okay to use hopefully to mean “I hope.” It’s acceptable to begin a sentence with and or but, to have a one-sentence paragraph, or use their with a singular antecedent. It’s not an error to say “I feel good” or “my bad.”

I could go on, of course. The point is, it’s just as ignorant to not know a grammar rule as it is to believe in a grammar rule that doesn’t really exist.

We are all still learning to speak and write better. Let’s be patient and kind with one another in the process. Let’s all see if we can grow in grammar and humility at the same time.

*****

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Use the Reply section below to leave a comment.

 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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  50. Rachel
    Rachel10-30-2013

    I like to pretend to be a grammar Nazi, but I’m not so great at finding all of the petty things.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-30-2013

      Don’t pretend to be one anymore. Grammar Nazis are generally unpleasant people and they often don’t seem very happy. :)

  51. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen10-25-2013

    Your balanced views show wise discernment. Although I admit to inwardly cringing when faced with common grammar mistakes, I am learning to focus more on the heart of the words over the letter of the grammar laws. (Insightful helps, Brian – please note I did not say ‘inciteful.”

  52. Charlie
    Charlie10-24-2013

    Fantastic! I love to write but grammar is my weakness, I worry too much about it I think, clearly I just need to get on and write – worry about the grammar afterwards!

  53. Sarah Lentz
    Sarah Lentz10-24-2013

    In my case, it isn’t always ignorance that makes me say or write things that make one of my sisters-in-law (an English major, like myself) bristle. I end sentences with prepositions when I think the sentence sounds stuffy and ridiculous when re-arranged to avoid doing so. It’s a pet peeve for her, but not for me. Grammar rules are not religious dogma; they’re more subjective than grammar purists would like to think. And if I think a sentence sounds better when we bend those “rules,” then I write it the way it sounds better–at least to me. ;)
    I don’t mind sentence fragments, either. My oldest writes clear and complete sentences, because that’s what he’s learned to do. I homeschool all our kids, but he spent the first few years in a local public school. He’s ahead of the curve when it comes to reading and writing, but I haven’t yet suggested to him that there’s a time when he can use sentence fragments without bringing the wrath of grammar Nazi’s upon his head. I figure he’ll learn from the books he’s reading–just as he learned most of what he already knows about writing.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-25-2013

      Sounds like your sister-in-law needs to subscribe to my blog! :)

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