Getting very angry about … grammar

People get very angry on the internets. Films, music, cake, sport, fitness, make-up, knitting – with ease, people can now be extraordinarily rude to complete strangers on any deceptively benign subject. Online, it is safe to be rude, judgmental and unpleasant without justifying what you’re writing.

And users of grammar-and-usage discussion groups can send the insults flying just as rapidly as on any football forum. On a thread in a writers’ group that I’m in, someone asked if it was OK to use “alright”, or if “all right” was the correct usage. One writer responded that anyone who used “alright” was clearly illiterate, and things degenerated from there.

Interestingly, the editors in the group gave different responses to this question than the writers: along the lines of, alright is a variant, and it’s a very common one. No-one is “illiterate” for choosing it.

In another group, an innocent question about a style choice (commas inside quote marks or outside?) got over 100 responses with varying levels of rage, pomposity and half-cocked grammar-splaining. Repeated suggestions that it was a style choice and just a difference between British English and American English didn’t stem the outrage.

I’m also in a group intended for journalists and subs, but it contains other people who appreciate language but maybe don’t do so for a living. Every so often I see posts like:
“‘Onto’ or ‘on to’? Discuss.”
“The Oxford comma: is there ever a sensible reason NOT to use it?”
Any reasonable discussion lasts for about two posts before everyone is arguing and saying “you can NEVER do such and such”, “only IDIOTS think this thing”, “that is just plain WRONG”, “I’m JUDGING you!”

My catchphrase in most of these arguments is usually “it’s a style” or “it depends” or “language changes”. Nobody is ever impressed by this response. “But is it CORRECT?!” they need to know.

The Monday grammar phone-in on Radio 5’s daily Up All Night show is one of the most popular on the BBC. Why is English usage – incorrect usage – a subject that stirs the emotions so much?

People are very concerned with what is “correct grammar”. A lot of the time, the examples they are worried about aren’t really grammar issues at all, they are to do with style and variation.

Choosing between -ize and -ise spellings is a style choice. Choosing between double quotation marks and single quotation marks is a style choice. Archaeology or archeology? Both are correct, but if you choose archeology make sure you choose Paleolithic rather than Palaeolithic in the same piece of writing. Commas or dashes? It’s a style choice. In a sense, the difference between American English and British English is a historically, geographically and sociolinguistically determined style choice.

As native speakers, we know English grammatical structures almost innately. We learned the language as children by hearing others talk, and without having to be taught the rules. So, most of us know what sounds OK. Most of us get by quite nicely – albeit with the usual familial language quirks and misheard mistakes that make us human.

But – as well as getting very angry about grammar and punctuation – educated, intelligent, literate people often get very worried, paranoid and defensive about potentially getting the rules wrong. Why? Because some “rules” make no bloody sense at all.

We become neurotic, anxious, intelligent adults, agonising over whether to use “that” or “which”, “who” or “whom”.

As Geoff Pullum says in 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice:

“It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write ‘however’ or ‘than me’ or ‘was’ or ‘which’, but can’t tell you why.”

And they can’t tell you why because the rule is often too illogical or arbitrary to memorise.

With the widespread use of social media, the exposure of our written language abilities to the scrutiny of others has brought many judgmental grammar “experts” to the fore. Judge Judgy McJudgerson says you are WRONG!

“Onto MUST be two words!”
“I’d cut my children out of my will for saying ‘ten items or less’. It’s fewer!”
“I’d divorce my wife for writing ‘anymore’.”
“You should ALWAYS use the Oxford comma. I don’t know why it’s from Oxford but I feel very strongly about it.”
“I burned my Chicago Manual of Style over the singular ‘they’.”
“I punched my postman because he split an infinitive.”
“I rugby-tackled the vicar for putting a preposition at the end of sentence.” [That’s enough.]

Before you go ranting about someone not following a grammar rule, or tell someone they are illiterate for using a variation you perceive to be an incorrect one, consider maybe that they are not wrong. Consider whether maybe you are a grammar dinosaur.

The Telegraph mocked a supposed error on the Bank of England five pound note.

They called it a “major grammar blunder”. Cue all the comments underneath from angry readers about the dropping of standards, dumbing down of everything, and general failure of society today. Bring back hanging, hang out the washing on the Siegfried line, pass the detonator, etc.

1 It’s a fiver; it’s not up for the bloody Booker prize.
2 It’s not a grammar blunder.
3 It’s punctuation.
4 It’s not even a punctuation blunder.
5 IT’S A STYLE. [Captions don’t necessarily need full stops at the end. It’s a quote underneath the face of the man who said it. It has no surrounding text. Why bother with quote marks to show it’s a quote when it’s clearly a quote. IT’S A STYLE!]

The article says “academics are divided” on whether it was an error. The non-linguist academics apparently thought it was a dreadful mistake. Well, when they actually decided to ask linguists, those academics weren’t divided at all. The linguists thought it was an entirely silly observation. God forbid you listen to a linguist’s opinion about language.

So here we all are, very concerned we’ll write something that might be considered incorrect for fear we might be exposed as pathetic grammar blunderers. And even academics are getting their tights in a twist about some missing punctuation.

If you genuinely want to brush up your grammar from a sensible source, Rediscover Grammar by David Crystal is a great place to start. The Fight for English by Crystal is also a very enlightening book regarding grammar hysteria. If you want to learn about English styles, Hart’s Rules has been the go-to style book for UK editors since the dawn of time. And now The New Oxford Style Manual combines Harts Rules with the excellent New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors in one volume. In US English, the expensive Chicago Manual of Style is a great investment for any editor (anywhere, not just USA), and a new edition is out in September.

Grammar rules that make no sense to anyone will eventually fall out of use. You can call people illiterate and be as rude as you like, but illogical rules will die out. And they should die. Some of these rules started off as being nonsense, were included in grammar guides that were not written by linguists (as in Elements of Style by Strunk and White) and gained credence from their mere existence in print.

So be aware of what is a style choice, what is a legitimate variation, and what is an outdated zombie rule.

But don’t write “could of”. That is just plain WRONG.


Picture: copyright © durantelallera courtesy of Shutterstock



14 thoughts on “Getting very angry about … grammar

  1. Fantastic stuff, Eleanor.

    The most experienced editors are relaxed about this sort of thing.

    Don’t let grammar hotheads sap your energy.

  2. Yeah, I’m not a fan of ‘bored of,’ but I’ve had to swallow my ire and keep on the bouncy side of life. There is no logical reason why one preposition is correct and the other one isn’t. Is there? Grrrr…..

    I took a lot of stick when I moved here from the USA many years ago, and wrote dates like 1960’s, 1800’s, and so forth. You’d think I’d been taught to use apostrophes in a grocer’s shop. But in fact, I have an Honors BA in English, and I knew I wasn’t doing it ‘wrong.’ What I was doing was writing it the American way, rather than the British way. I finally found clarification in the Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary, and am now able to tell smug British grammarians that THEY need to look it up.

    In fact, I’ve now adoped the British way with dates—1960s, 1800s, etc—but just try leaving the apostrophe out of As, for grades. That’s called a coined plural, and it’s correct to write your grades as A’s. If that’s what you got. Which I did. So there.

  3. A well-considered, clearly stated and amusing run through our favourite grammar arguments. Thank you for the summary of sensible sources.
    Although ‘rules’ (common practice) are needed to standardise the general mode of communication, you are completely right when you point out that those which don’t make sense will fade out of use. I also appreciate your point that so many of the variations are a question of style, and not errors of understanding.
    I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

    1. Thanks very much! Yes, quite right, but as you say, it’s a bit long, especially for sharing on Twitter etc. What people lump under the heading of grammar usually isn’t; which is the point I hope I made. Thanks for reading!

  4. Let’s start a wish list of grammar RULES we’d like to eliminate in all of the World Englishes. I propose the required “third person singular subject-verb agreement” required for the present tense form of a verb for the top of the list. Second on the list – present tense word forms for the verb “to be.”
    Or, we can just wait for the users to make the changes.

    1. I forgot to mention my favorite Southern American English verb phrase: “might could.”
      An example with several explanations of what the speaker is thinking:
      I might could help you after work tonight. = I am listening for the rest of what you want me to do. / If something more attractive comes along, I won’t be able to help. / You need to persuade me with a good reason to help or something you’ll do for me. / I am not sure yet, but I am not going to say no.

  5. >In US English, the expensive Chicago Manual of Style is a great investment for any editor (anywhere, not just USA), and a new edition is out in September.

    If you ignore Bryan Garner’s awful sections on grammar and usage.

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