All Hail: Grammar police, don’t arrest this girl

Everyone is familiar with the “Grammar Nazi,” that ornery individual who plagues the life of anyone who utters a phrase deemed “grammatically incorrect.” But don’t we all have a little of the Grammar Nazi in us?

Personally, more than anything else, I hate when people use apostrophes to pluralize. Everyone has pet peeves, especially when it comes to language. We all consider ourselves experts because, hey, we speak it, so we must know what we’re talking about.

Griping about our language is common – there are many language-use columns and books telling us what to say and how to say it. Ever since publications began assuming a readership with at least an eighth-grade education (that’s what TIME magazine goes for), we began expecting them to have grammar and spelling down pat, when the vast majority of us (Americans at least, and I’m just speaking from experience) have had a lot of trouble learning these things in the first place.

Recent posts on a blog I read daily, the Language Log (itre.cis.upenn.edu/myl/languagelog), which includes posts from many linguists well known in their field, have discussed language usage complaints and forums for griping that have recently sprung up. This includes a blog post at the UK’s Telegraph website asking readers, “What is the most annoying phrase in the English language?” and a post by Dick Cavett at the New York Times website (his first ever blog post there) titled “It’s only language.”

All this “linguistic naming and shaming,” as University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman puts it, has garnered 3,012 comments on the Telegraph website. Looking through some of the comments, I found most people have ideas about word use that I do not agree with (granted, the readers are primarily English and their judgments are sometimes different), and there are even disagreements between comments. How are we to follow these “rules” if we can’t even agree on what the rules are?

As a copy editor for The News, I have to pay close attention to grammar, spelling, accuracy, consistency and style when I read the newspaper each week. However, I try not to carry this thinking too far into my overall reaction toward the written English language, and certainly not toward speech.

I understand the perspective of those griping about language; before I studied linguistics I was the same way, thinking people who made “mistakes” were somehow inferior to me. Of course I still experience this line of thinking to a degree: as I mentioned before, I can’t stand apostrophe misuse, and simple spelling errors bug the hell out of me. But I recognize these errors don’t actually indicate intelligence, since they don’t generally impair understanding.

This isn’t even really the problem. It’s not so ridiculous to expect people to read over something once before letting it out into the world. The problem comes when people expect each other to follow silly grammar rules – rules that nobody follows in informal writing and certainly not in speech. These include not splitting infinitives, not ending sentences in a preposition and knowing when to use less vs. fewer and who vs. whom.

Strunk and White’s book, “Elements of Style,” goes so far as to tell us to avoid adjectives and adverbs and write with nouns and verbs instead. Examine your own writing sometime and see if you naturally follow these rules or if you have to edit these “mistakes” out.

Criticism of others’ language is natural, but there are more constructive ways to think about language use. Take a linguistics class and learn why certain structures are grammatical and others are not. Learn to appreciate the diversity of language use instead of condemning it.

– Hannah Flaherty is a middler math major and a member of The News staff.

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