Can Grammar Be Bad? Part 1


Mean TeacherMost of us take for granted that there is a fixed set of rules governing grammar. There is, in other words, good and bad grammar, or, if you prefer, correct and incorrect grammar.

But have you ever wondered where the rules come from? I mean who makes the rules? I always took it for granted that my grandfather and Mrs. Crabapple in 3rd grade were right when they corrected sentences like Me and my friends are gonna play baseball or Can I go to the bathroom? They sure spoke with authority, but how did they know?

The truth is, there is no authoritative body or infallible text that one can refer to in matters grammatical. On many issues there is general consensus among dictionaries (e.g., American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, OED) and style guides (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, The New Fowler’s). But there are at least as many grammar conundrums that experts are divided about. Should a sentence end in a preposition or begin with a conjunction (like that last one)? Should LOL be considered a word? Is there a difference between further and farther? Whatever opinion you have about any of these, you can find an “authority” to back you up.

But why should English teachers, classroom textbooks, or dictionary and style guide publishers get to pronounce judgment on the language we use? Nobody elected them. They do not rule by divine right. Why should anyone care what Mr. Fowler, Mr. Merriam, or Mr. Webster thinks? The truth is, grammar “rules” are all nebulous and questionable. Just because grandpa or old Mrs. Crabapple went into conniptions doesn’t mean you’ve violated some natural law.

Those of you who know me might be smelling out some hypocrisy here (hypocrisy smells nasty, doesn’t it?). I know. I confess. I’ve tended toward grammar snobbishness over the years. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown mellower. Maybe part of it is getting tired of correcting my kids about words. I mean, there are so many more important things in life, right? Another part has been finding myself in the wrong too many times. I’ve corrected things I’ve seen and heard without even checking on my sources. In too many cases, I’ve learned my hard and fast rule has been hotly debated or outright debunked for generations.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I find myself still in neutral ground when it comes to the debate between prescriptive and descriptive grammar (more on that in another post). I still think some moderated elitism is a good thing when it comes to the language we speak. I thank God for Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster. But it would do us all good to loosen our grip on our grammar convictions.

I’d love to hear your views on this. Please feel free to comment.

About the Author

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

  1. Merri

    My 101-year-old Mammy’s words come to mind. She would say, “Long as folks know exactly what you mean in your heart when you say something, don’t keep correcting them about how they say it.” As a child, I often placed myself as a Grammar Police. In a nutshell, your balanced approach seems the best to me. Thanks for sharing!

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