Being the Grammar Police
For nearly two years, I’ve written posts about grammar and usage, so clearly it’s a topic that I think is important. Equally important, I think, is knowing when it’s appropriate to insist on proper grammar and how to go about it.
You hear of cases now and then in which people go into public and make a big show of correcting grammatical problems on signage. Take for example this instance that resulted in probation for two men who fixed the grammar on a sign at Grand Canyon National Park. The men in fact went on a nationwide crusade to fix public typos, as documented in an NPR story and a book.
If you search the web for “Facebook grammar,” you’ll find a number of lists of posts in which people have used the language incorrectly and been corrected in the comments. The corrections are often delivered with a distinct air of superiority to or disdain for the author of the incorrect post, and the sites listing them tend to do so for the sake of humor.
I don’t think either of these types of corrections turn out to be very useful. Or, while they may result in the correction of grammar, they also tend to be self-serving. They call attention to the people making the corrections rather than to the reasons it might be beneficial to use the language more carefully, and I think they’re usually petty and toxic rather than relevant and helpful. There is almost always a subtext of “I am smarter than whoever made this mistake” — a subtext that is essentially trollish.
This is not to say that raising awareness about using the language carefully isn’t valuable. I do think that putting care into how we write and speak helps us to formulate our thoughts more clearly and shows respect for our readers and our subject matter. I think that if more people used such care, the world would be in some ways a better place. And I think that helping those who’re interested in understanding the rules of grammar and the finer points of usage is a good thing to do. But I also think that trolling people by pointing out mistakes that were clearly only typos or mistakes that, in their context, are minor or forgivable (a quick Facebook status requires less rigor than a persuasive letter) doesn’t help a thing and in fact may do more harm than good.
After a year of writing a post a week about grammar and usage, I tapered off to a post a month both because I was running out of ideas and because we added a bunch of new regular features to The Daily Post. Although grammar’s never far from my mind, I’m retiring the column — internally they’re calling me the grammarian emeritus, and I eagerly await my mortarboard and robes — and will be writing for a while instead about writing I like (and why).