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Does Grammar Matter?

My post of last week on the proper use of “me,” “myself,” and “I” was my most popular to date…

My post of last week on the proper use of “me,” “myself,” and “I” was my most popular to date if the comments are any indication. If you stuck around for the comments, you will have seen a little bit of debate on how much it really matters to use the language as the grammar fuddy duddies (of which I am one to some degree or another) would have us use it. Commenter nrhatch provided a link to a fun YouTube video narrated by comedian Stephen Fry that I’ll relink below:

There are no doubt many schools of thought on how important it really is to get the language “right.” I’ll consider two.

The pragmatist will say that as long as the writing in question conveys the desired message, the finer points of grammar don’t matter a whole lot. That is, if I write “Johnny and me are going to the unicorn store,” nobody’s going to mistake my meaning, and “Johnny and I are going to the unicorn store” adds no real clarity. So the pragmatist may say that insisting on the me/I distinction in such a sentence amounts to insisting on a rule for the rule’s sake (you might call this pedantry) and not because the rule is actually terribly valuable. From the perspective of a pragmatic and forgiving grammarian, being called down for the me/I distinction in a case like the one I cite here might seem a lot like being given a traffic ticket for rolling gently through a well-lit and deserted intersection in the dead of night in spite of the stop sign. Sure, you’ve broken the law, but it burns you up to get the ticket and you might mutter a few choice words under your breath about the police officer as you drive away.

Then, of course, there are the sticklers (or SNOOTs). The sticklers insist upon proper usage sometimes even to the point of awkwardness. Sometimes, a sentence just reads better if you split the darned infinitive or end it with a preposition, but the sticklers will have none of it. The sticklers carry grammar first-aid kits for fixing ungrammatical signs they find in public. They point out misuse of “whom” in Facebook posts to their offending friends and family.The sticklers do things like write blog posts about how to use objective and subjective pronouns properly, and they most assuredly read books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (even if they disagree with Mr. Strunk’s agenda).

I fall somewhere between the two camps, or paradoxically somehow in both of them. Although I happily use informal language in my speech and in many of the things I write, I generally know the rules pretty well (I even know why some of them, like the split infinitive rule, are stupid). I don’t insist upon the rules, but I geek out with other grammar nerds when we’re thrown together. I think having a standardized grammar serves some defensible purposes, and my posts here to date have reflected an interest in exposing the rules to those who’re interested, but I also know that our usage rules evolved from our usage. Speech patterns emerged before anybody ever wrote the first grammar book.

Since there had been some debate in the other post, I thought I’d dedicate a post to the question of how much standard grammar and usage matter. Do you fall more on the pragmatic side or the stickler side? If you’re more of a pragmatist, how far are you willing to go? For example, would you accept a sentence like “River jumped clothes no into while wearing he Saturday last the”? It pretty clearly conveys information but is far from standard usage. If you’re more of a stickler, are there any of the standard rules you’re willing to relax a bit? If so, what criteria do you use to decide which rules to relax?

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    1. How about “River jumped he into the”? I may have made the example too complex. In this shorter version, I don’t think there’s much room for misunderstanding the sentence, but it’s clearly not standard written English. If it matters (and I feel like an example of this severity does), where do we draw the line between what’s ok and what’s not? (I’m not necessarily asking you directly — just restating the general question with my simplified example handy.)

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  1. I’ll be honest, my grammar usage is more instinctual than factual. I could not recite any of the rules of grammar if my life depended on it. That being said, I tend to be dismissive of the content of an article or any piece of writing when I encounter grammatical and spelling errors. The English language is such a lovely language so why not celebrate it by using it to it’s full advantage? Perhaps my view is also informed by my background in French. If you want the grammar police, look no further than the Academies Francaise. They are the first and last word on the French language.

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  2. I do get slightly irritated when stores change spellings of words such as ‘Supa’ for Super.

    I think sentences should be clear and make sense but I am not a stickler on grammar.

    I do not think that being a rude stickler gets anyone anywhere. It just makes the not so grammatical writers defensive and they begin to hate writing and reading. I do not want to deter anyone from such joys.

    I have found myself in tears of laughter from errors found in student work. I have taken the approach, where possible, to share the funny side of what they have done to teach them, in a light manner, how to correct their writing. They see the humour, accept their mistake, have a giggle and learn that mistakes are not so bad.

    We all make mistakes! Mistakes make us human and help us learn.

    People will always judge others. The lesson for those who think they ‘know all’ is not to act like judge and jury. No one is better than anyone else. Try to be compassionate and put yourself in their shoes. Your reactions will influence their use of language in the future…

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  3. I am a stickler; having attended a private school wherein Nuns taught us, believe me, the lessons were beaten into us. Although I cannot recite the rules verbatim (it’s been over 50 years since attending that school), there are certain things that stick with me which irritate me… like when someone ends a sentence with a preposition. :0

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  4. AS A GENERAL-ACCEPTABLE MEDIUM OF COMMUNICATION/EXPRESSION,GRAMMAR MATTERS;YES IT DOES.HOWEVER,IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT THE ‘SYNTAX RULES’ ARE YET TO BE FULLY EMPLOYED,IN THE DAY-TO-DAY CONVERSATORIAL TONE.THE NAUSEATING MANNER IN WHICH SOME PEOPLE ANGLICIZE THEIR TONE,SHOULD BE VEHEMENTLY DISCOURAGED.SUCH PEOPLE ARE KILLING GRAMMAR,THEY ARE NOT IMPROVING ITS STYLE!

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  5. Glad you decided to share the Stephen Fry video. :D

    I don’t mind informal writing (see my first paragraph), but I wince a bit at statements like “Me and Al went to the store” or “Al gave it to myself.” I dislike stumbling over misspellings and misused words like “your and you’re” and “there, their, and they’re.”

    I prefer reading articles, books, and posts in which the author has spent at least a modicum of effort to clean up sloppy mistakes. I have unsubscribed from blogs filled with cringe-worthy statements like “we was going” or “I were happy.”

    That said, I rarely lose sleep over bad grammar . . . nor do I spend time at cocktails parties dissecting the grammar mistakes made in casual conversations. :lol:

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  6. I definitely lean towards the stickler end of things, though I am certainly not as universal in my pedantic nature as I used to be. There are, without question, times and places for such pedantry, even on the web. My personal opinion on the matter is that any author that wishes to write credibly and professionally, be it fact or fiction, should follow as many rules as he knows and get someone to help him follow the ones he doesn’t. I don’t always think that formal third-person voice is necessary to achieve this effect, (certainly not in fiction,) but knowing the difference between effect and affect is necessary. Likewise some semblance of understanding when it comes to the use of punctuation is necessary. When and when not to pluralize verbs and an entire list of other things come to mind as well. The issue is that not everyone is trying to be an expert or write credibly. On very informal blogs and diary-type entries, such pedantry is meaningless if the intended message is clear. Also, instant messaging, which is a place where the extreme lack of grammar formerly irked me to no end, has no need, (aside from personal preference,) of such a dogmatic approach to language, provided all parties involved are understanding each other.

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  7. This my third time trying to respond, typical and also why I can’t always do the grammar thing correctly. I have dysgraphia which has gotten worse as I have aged. For those of you who do not know about this learning challenge, it might explain why some of us fail those of you who are sticklers.

    This particular learning challenge means when asked, I usually know how to spell “the” orally, but if I write or type it I don’t see that I have spelled either eth or hte or het or teh. Of course, spell check sees and corrects. Spell check does not work on words that are misspelled only to appear to the spell checker to be a properly spelled word, just not the one I intended.

    Aging has made this worse. I type “now” for “not” and “not” for “now.” Moreover, when I edit, I see the word I wanted and the word that is there. . When I spot my mistakes and sometimes I do all goes well, but when I don’t my sentences confuse and then days later which is when I can see the error I get pulled into a whirl pool of shame.

    Then there is punctuation. Not sure what makes for all the problems there. One psychologists said it was that my brain can’t hold onto formulas and rules not tied to a narrative. Means I don’t remember numbers well, have to look up my social security number five times out of ten and the other five times might goof two or three times. Never could remember math facts. I spend time look up rules, but very few stick and eventually, I just go with the flow. So I tend to punctuate erratically. Over the years I have done better, but if tired or stressed or frustrated the errors mount. .

    Not that I haven’t managed to move forward, sharing knowledge and writing is a passion. H have written two books that were published, but did grieve the editors and both moved to other fields. And I do post every day on my blog, but almost always find an error later that shames me.

    Anyway, I think this is important information for editors and teachers, so there you are. Stay strong, I work at it every day.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. I think that errors committed as a result of pathology are a different beast than those committed carelessly, but naturally, not everybody knows your background, so you probably don’t get the fairest of shakes on the grammar front.

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  8. I’ve thought about this a great deal recently. I would have always considered myself something of a pedant in spelling and basic punctuation (although not caring about split infinitives in the slightest) and I am proud that three of my four kids act as grammar police on fb with their friends! And yet, as I listen to spoken English from around the streets of Britain becoming increasingly distanced from the English I speak, I wonder if by my old age accepted grammar usage will have changed almost beyond recognition? I think clarity of communication of ideas is vital, but an entire generation has emerged which just doesn’t see it that way. I find the prospect of correct usage disappearing depressing but almost inevitable.

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  9. I’m somewhat of a stickler, in that I abhor poor grammar that makes the writer (of the forum for which they’re writing) appear stupid or careless. This is in regard to formal publications, newspapers, magazines, information brochures and the like. There’s nothing worse than getting a brochure from someone you need to trust, such as your new neurosurgeon, and see sloppy, careless, writing. It makes me think “If they don’t care enough to have someone intelligent put togther their brochure, how can I trust them with my brain surgery?” That said, I do enjoy seeing poor grammar from time to time for its humor value.

    BTW Daryl, I find replying to your grammar questions nervewracking, as I’m always afraid I’ll make some idiotic, obvious grammar error myself, and come across looking ridiculous.

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    1. Oh, don’t worry about that. We all make mistakes. (Until I caught it upon rereading this post after publication, I had a subject/verb agreement error in a sentence containing a compound subject, for example.)

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  10. One truism in life as well as grammar is “You need to know the rules in order to break them.” This is where most people fall down, they don’t understand their use so break them and say it doesn’t matter. But it does!

    Jim

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  11. I’m in both camps. I’m not concerned about me/I but the the less/fewer thing irritates me no end, especially when it is made my journalists.

    The one that grates on me most is “get/have”. I think it is an Americanism and thankfully hasn’t made its way over here yet. “Can I get a coffee?” when in Starbucks for example. Using “get” when you mean “have” implies you intend to make it yourself.

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  12. I, at first ‘glance’ (right there, I’m doing it!), would say that I am a stickler. Hearing or reading incorrect usage of grammar is like hearing the scratching sound of nails on a blackboard–deeply irritating. I immediately want to correct it, and I have to fight with myself on whether or not to do so, depending on the speaker. On the other hand, if I want to get my point across, my pragmatic side may break several rules, such as in, “You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout!” Another example is, “That ain’t mine!” I think I agree to some degree with Mr. Fry, that the expectations are that one can dress up (or down) their language to fit the circumstances. I think it helps people to know the correct way to use the language, so that they can be heard in whatever setting they happen to be-in. HA-HA!

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  13. In Italy we were taught grammar, grammar, and more grammar as a teaching method to learn English as a second language however none of us could put together a sentence and be understood in front of a native speaker. I believe that the main purpose of language is to communicate so although grammar is important, it is much more important to communicate and connect with people!

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  14. Language has changed so much that even good grammar is lost on editors on national TV stations! My ‘family is fine’ is correct. Why do people still say ‘my family are fine.” They see it as a group/collective not as a single noun for that group.
    What do you think?

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    1. Posted yesterday in a Cranky Old Lady List of 10 things I am not thankful for. “People who quarrel with my grammar or point to a misspelled word rather than honor my words of wisdom. I am learning disabled, thank you and yes, I do fall short sometimes But I am a critical thinker and mostly you start correcting my spelling or grammar because I have made my point and you don’t know how to refute it. Knowing that makes me a bit less cranky. Still I don’t thank you. Hurts because I also know children who suffer the same disability end up feeling stupid and shamed which only makes being LD more difficult.”

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  15. I fall into the stickler camp. I never return to poorly written blogs or printed materials. In fact, I cancelled my subscription to the Press Journal because it was so poorly proofread before publication.

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  16. To add a Cranky Old Lady’s penny and a half: Two thoughts. Twitting is changing language, but language always changes and as with all things some embrace the new, some the old. Think we Old Ones will be out voted.

    Second thought. I have a memory clitch–part of a learning disability that makes it almost impossible to hold on to non-narrative stuff. Numbers defeat me, and I tend to punctuate based mostly on how I pause when speaking. Not helpul. Not at all helpful. Still I already re-write, edit and re-write probably twenty times for someone who holds the rules at the ready.

    Just sharing. I also spent a year in bed with a home tutor who like many of college professor thought my thought processes were way above average and so ignored my grammatical errors. My high school English teacher told me not to expect to get into college let alone make it beyond Freshman English. Fooled him.

    I have also succeeded in getting two books published, but think I killed the editors in the process. The first went off to Ireland to become a poetess and the second decided to stay home and raise her baby. I like to think it was my saying “Only one life is granted, pursue your dreams” that lead to their decisions, but know my writing pushed them a bit also.

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