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Against Grammar – and Other Rules of English

“Why can’t the English learn to speak?”

         Henry Higgins, from My Fair Lady

 I’ve been scaring all my friends lately by ranting on about grammar and how much I hate it. They come to me with concerned looks and say, “But doesn’t grammar help you understand what other people are saying?” And I tell them, “Well, that’s where it should stop. Once you understand a person, it doesn’t matter how they said it.”

Why do I sound this extreme? (And, admittedly, I am not this extreme at heart, because the misuse of ‘your/you’re’ does annoy me.) I puzzled over this fact for a while. I’m the sort of person who loves learning new words, and easily can remember the official rules for using ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’ – and even the more obscure facts such as ‘peruse’ originally meant to read carefully, not skim. So why would I hate language rules?

Because I hate how knowledge of English language rules can be used to bully people.

Are You a Language Bully?” asks Matthew J.X. Malady at Slate, underlining my point that people often use language rules to shame each other, show off over each other, and to feel superior to each other.

He restricts this bullying to obscure language rules, but I know how even rules ‘everyone should know’ can be used as weapons. How someone can pointedly and clearly fire a criticism at someone else, and be met with, “I don’t think you know what ‘literally’ actually means…”

Maybe it’s because I volunteer to teach ESL, or because I live in a country where I meet immigrants daily, or because my mother and grandparents and so many members of my own community were immigrants themselves. Maybe it’s because I’ve travelled and know what it’s like not to know ‘the rules.’ I see how the inability to communicate holds people back, and once they gain that ability to communicate, the fear of others still keeps them quiet.

Language should be democratic. If we have freedom of speech, we should also have freedom of speaking without being held back by nerves or fear of others. If people can’t understand us – well then, that’s our problem, and maybe we should go back and rephrase things. But if we made a point, why dismiss it because of how it’s phrased?

Knowing how to use English ‘properly’ tells other people you’re well educated, but, more sinisterly, it also indicates wealth and social class. Certain accents and words (like “ain’t”) are looked down on and shunned, and children are repeatedly taught not to use them, even though almost every English speaker in the world can understand the word “ain’t.” (Sorry, I always loved that word). Why words and sentences become “proper” English, while other words become “slang” – well, it often depends on who uses them. It also depends on time and how words change over time, but I hate, hate, hate how perfectly clear language can be looked down on. How the underlying message to enforcing language rules can be: “Only the elite should be listened to.”

Whoa, so I’m ranting again. Let’s narrow this down to how this should play out in the real world – since I don’t actually believe we should throw out all the English language rules out tomorrow. Keep the one that are useful, thank you.

I think good writers are able to recognize a powerful expression, and the truth that shines through the words, no matter how it’s phrased – like Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn. Use whatever combination of words you need to get the message across. Linguists can go on doing wonderful studies of how people actually use language, and where ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ language come from. And English teachers (by this I mean the poor souls who have to teach grammar and spelling and the difference between a ‘subject’ and a ‘predicate’) can limit themselves to teaching our kids, and being quiet when nobody follows the rules.

And we can all help each other speak clearly and understandably, while leaving behind the judgemental worries about the disintegration of the English language.

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Just Write What You Mean

There’s Got to be a Common-Sense Approach to the Language Rules


Please Correct Your Mistakes
(“Edited Version of First Book,” by Joanna Penn, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Presciptivists vs. Descriptivists – apparently these are two sides of a lingual battle that involves literary theorists, writers and all-around grammar nazis. The New Yorker magazine (that bastion of literary prestige!) kicked things off by describing an old conflict between those who want to prescribe rules for English that everyone else must follow (“prescriptivists”), and those who believe writers should be allowed to write however they please (“descriptivists”). The blogsphere exploded in response, arguing that the article was deeply confused about how these groups approach language rules, and that reality is not nearly so clear-cut as to divide language users into two distinguishable groups anyway. You’d be pretty radical to insist any utter gibberish should be accepted as grammatical, and I know many writers who’d cringe at being dictated to about how to use words. So yeah, maybe both groups are stereotypes. Grammar and language rules are things people love to fight over, strangely enough, but there’s got to be a common-sense approach to it.

To me, it’s pretty simple. I want people to understand me, and hopefully to feel something through what I write. If that means discarding every grammatical rule in the book, so be it. I’ve used sentence fragments, comma splices, run-on sentences, and far too many em dashes. I’ve made up words and mangled sentences. I’ve ended sentences with preposition, and started sentences with ‘because’ (and I’m still not sure why my elementary teachers insisted that was a no-no). All of it was in an effort to put my jumble of thoughts on paper in some kind of coherence. The thoughts in my head are far more incoherent than any grammatical mess, trust me, and sometimes there’s no way to force them into some rigid and imposed framework. But all this does not mean that I want to throw all grammar out the window – as if I’m on the far radical edge of the “descriptivist” position. Let me be clear, I write to communicate something.

Because, after all, if something is riddled with spelling mistakes it is far more distracting than whatever the main message of the writing is. If you expect a sentence to contain “you’re,” you are going to be thrown off it the writer puts “your.” If you start your masterpiece with a comma splice, some reader out there will never take the rest of your work seriously, because they just can’t get past the fact you didn’t know that simple rule of grammar (never mind the fact you did it deliberately). In other words, grammar should only be followed as much as the reader expects you to.

(If you’re interested, Steven Pinker explain this far better than I can over at Slate, but his article is also far longer.)

See, if you’re writing dialogue, and your character is an uneducated bum, you can use “ain’t” as much as you want. If you’re writing an academic paper, maybe not. (I love writing dialogue, by the way, because real-life dialogue is so dominated by sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and other grammatical blunders. You practically have to break rules to make your characters sound like real persons). It’s like the little rule about using “said” all the time in dialogue – many writers avoid using it, but it’s often better to use “said” than “pontificated,” “communicated,” or “opined,” since the little word “said” is expected by readers while the other words as so unexpected it’s jarring. And jarring shakes a reader out of a story.

So my goal as a writer is to maintain the illusion of the story as much as possible, and avoid jarring the reader out of the story at all costs. Therefore some grammatical rules must be followed. Sentences should end in periods, unless you’re pretending to write from some distant future where punctuation is entirely different (and that sort of story would be entirely difficult to pull off without seeming gimmicky). Quotation marks should go around dialogue. But things like semicolons – well, it may be entirely grammatically correct to place them in a sentence, and the sentence might really need some kind of connection device included in it, but semicolons are so formal-looking you’ve got to be very, very careful with them. It’s okay if your whole story is pretty formally written already. But if your story is from the first person point-of-view of a very slangy character, a semicolon’s going to look weird, no matter how grammatically correct it is. (And this is another reason I love the over-used em dash).

In the end, I think grammar should be very personal. Oh look, I’ve horrified English teachers everywhere! But it’s your decision as a writer to decide which grammatical rules are going to enhance your story, and which ones you should break. This implies, of course, that you know a bit about grammar (and hey, I’m one of many writers who can always learn a thing or two more about it). English is an evolving language, so take advantage of that. If you’re lucky, you might be like Shakespeare, and get the invent half the vocabulary people will use in the future. 🙂


Are you in favour of dictating grammar rules, or allowing writers their freedom – and how much freedom? Is there a common-sense approach to the funny quirks of the English language?

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