Why I Am Not a Member of the Grammar Police

People regularly assume that I am out to get them. See, they find out that I’m an English teacher. And the most common response is “Uh-oh! I better watch what I say!”

My various social media feeds regularly feature memes like this:

Or photos like this:

Or comics. With PIRATES, too. Gotta admit, having pirates makes just about anything better, so, maybe the piratey aspect kind of cancels out the grammar bit… I dunno.

Or advertisements for T-shirts:

Or, hey, stickers! Everybody loves stickers! Right?

Or comic strips. Ha ha ha ha. Hey, see, it’s funny, because he’s BLEEDING.

So, like, I AM an English teacher. And, EVEN for an English teacher, I have a pretty strong grasp of grammar. It’s something I find interesting. All languages HAVE grammar, but in different languages, it works in different ways. It’s like playing with different puzzles, or, I guess if you’re a visual artist, the difference in working in oils or acrylics or watercolors, or with a stylus and digital tablet. You find similarities in patterns and techniques, even despite the differences.

But, here’s the thing: I’m not a jerk about it.

I mean, if YOU ASK me to help you wrangle the structure of a particularly ornery sentence, I will be only too delighted to do so. We’ll probably go back and forth a little bit about your audience and your meaning and intended tone. Probably more than you really care about, to be perfectly honest. And we’ll come up with something that effectively conveys your meaning, clearly and smoothly, and sounds good, and makes YOU sound good.

But if you DON’T ask me, then I’m not gonna say anything about it. Oo, wait, wait, here, you ready for this? I don’t think you are. I don’t think you’re ready for this. But here goes:

I ain’t gonna say anything about it.

Wow. I think I just gave myself a thrill. Is that what a thrill feels like? Yeah. Wow. I’m such a REBEL.

(That was sarcasm, folks, in case you couldn’t tell.)

The question I have, for people who engage in this sort of … nonsense … yes, I can say that, but of course, you know, there are … other ways of putting it…. Anyway, the question I have is, “why?”

Not, “WHYYYY?!” but an honest, I-want-to-understand “why?” What is your purpose in pointing out someone else’s use of non-standard grammar?

Because I can see only two potential reasons for this.

One is for the purpose of clarification. And in this case, I think it’s legitimate. However, what that means is that the deficiency is in YOU. YOU didn’t understand what they meant. And so it’s appropriate for you to ask them to explain it further. And it should involve an apology on YOUR part for needing that explanation, because YOU are the one who recognizes YOUR OWN lack of understanding.

The other purpose is in order to assert or reinforce one’s own superiority. Like, you know what they meant. You understand what they were trying to get across. And you just want to point out that THEY were WRONG. 

Dude, that just makes you a frickin’ jerk. Okay? That’s all. That’s what it does. Actually, no, it doesn’t MAKE you a jerk. It just reveals that you ARE a jerk, and now? Everybody knows.

Everybody knows you’re a jerk. Congratulations.

The thing is, you really can’t get around making these kinds of judgments. If you notice, you notice. And there’s nothing wrong with that. What matters is how you respond to it.

It’s sort of like the “ten-second rule” in etiquette: 

So, like, if someone has spinach in their teeth, or toilet paper stuck to their shoe, or something like that, let them know, and they can fix it. This is something I appreciate, because I actually get spinach stuck in my teeth a LOT. I have a spot here where this tooth isn’t entirely straight, and it’s actually got the teensiest gap at the TOP, which means that food just looooves to get stuck there. And I really like spinach, too! Like I had some with dinner last night. The recipe calls for tatsoi, but I mean, I live in rural Georgia, and do you know how hard it is to find tatsoi in my neck of the woods? Well, anyway, harder than I’m willing to work, I’ll tell you that, especially when I just actually really LIKE SPINACH. Except not canned. Sorry, Popeye, but it gets nasty.

Anyway, that’s not the point. Sorry.

Even when you bring this to the person’s attention, it’s important to do so discreetly, because the purpose is so that they can fix it, NOT so that they feel bad about it. So, following the same principle, if someone has posted something, or said something, and it’s grammatically incorrect, there’s no way for them to fix that, because it’s already out there. They can’t un-say or un-post it. Even if they edit the post, (a) the original version has probably already been shared, and (b) the edited version will probably be marked as an edit, which tends to make people wonder what it said originally. 

It is POSSIBLE, that if this particular error is one that this person makes regularly, and you have a close, comfortable relationship with them, that you could privately let them know about it so that they won’t continue to do something that might cause other people to think less of them. 

Or you could just… you know … not. Because it’s really not that big a deal. So they make a mistake. So they’re not right about everything, all the time. Guess what? Neither are you.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s OKAY to make mistakes. 

In a sense, grammar is like etiquette. Judith Martin, known as “Miss Manners,” was asked in an interview, “If people are rude, do you correct them? Is that polite?”

And her response was, “No. Because that’s rude.”

She goes on to say, “that’s another bane of my life, is people who think they’re helping, and they say so and so did something rude. Well, you’ve just violently increased the amount of rudeness in the world, not to mention when you bring in actual violence. You haven’t helped.”

But you see, the thing is, there are SO MANY OTHER problems in the world that need fixing more than errors in grammar. I’m not going to say that accuracy and precision aren’t important – because they are, absolutely – but there are definitely other things that are MORE important. WAAAAY more important. Kindness, probably, right up there at the top. Curiosity, the desire to explore things and find things out. Integrity – following through on your word and making sure that you say what you mean. Adaptability, being able to adjust effectively to changing situations. We got LOTS of opportunity to practice THAT back in 2020. Patience. Oof. That’s … that’s a challenge. I don’t like that one very much. Buuuuut, yeah. It’s important. And optimism. Hope that things can get better. That we can help them get better.

And, along with that, humor. And in service of that, I’m going to leave you with a bit of grammarian humor:

Okay, so, yeah. I know, a pun is “the lowest form of humor.” But I hope it at least made you smile. If it did? Totally worth it.

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