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How to Escape the Claws of the Grammar Police

If superfluous commas, misplaced apostrophes (looking at you, it’s/its, they’re/their!), and sentence-ending prepositions make you flinch in horror, you’re in…

If superfluous commas, misplaced apostrophes (looking at you, it’s/its, they’re/their!), and sentence-ending prepositions make you flinch in horror, you’re in the right place. We take grammar seriously at The Daily Post; my fellow editors and I can often be found quibbling and nitpicking over tenses, modes, and — you guessed it — punctuation. Good writing, though, isn’t merely about adhering to rules. It’s also about knowing how and when to break them. Today, let’s talk about grammar — and the kinds of liberties you might consider taking with it.

No red pens allowed beyond this point. (Image by mpclemens, CC BY 2.0)

No red pens allowed beyond this point! (Image by mpclemens, CC BY 2.0)

Know your grammar

We’d all like to think we’re the Lifetime Presidents of the Global Union of Universally Accepted Grammar. (Wait, you don’t?!) In reality, English is spoken by billions. Everywhere it’s spoken, its grammar depends, to a certain extent, on the community that uses it. One person’s aberration can be another’s standard — so we should all relax just a bit before jumping on every imagined grammatical offense (except for my pet peeves, please; those are clearly unacceptable).

It follows that breaking grammar rules means breaking your grammar rules — those that your community of friends, relatives, colleagues, and readers deems acceptable.

Infuse your writing with human voices

Spoken language is inherently forgiving of grammatical oddities, from up-talk (raising your voice as if you’re asking a question, even though your sentence isn’t one) to incomplete sentences and false starts. Incorporating bits of conversation into your writing will liven it up — and allow you to show a more playful side to your grammar. You could replicate actual exchanges, come up with imaginary ones, or just tone down your usual written voice to a more oral-sounding one.

Like our scars and other imperfections, the errors we make when we speak are an important part of how the world sees us: they make us unique. If you have a verbal tic that really conveys a sense of how you sound, embrace it — even if it’s not 100% correct.

Tip: Engaging speakers often make the kinds of mistakes your composition teachers would really hate (for example, using run-on sentences to convey a sense of urgency). Who’s the best storyteller in your family? Listen to that person talk, and try to nail a couple of verbal tics that might be “incorrect,” but help engage the listener.

Internet grammar is broken. Why fix it?

There’s a whole array of expressions that would make any gruff editor’s blood curdle, yet are indispensable for anyone commenting on and participating in online discourse. Phrases like “I can’t even” and “all the things” are everywhere. So is the grammatically incomplete fragment “Because X” (“I went for a jog. Because health.”). Some choose to avoid these phrases altogether. Others don’t even realize they aren’t, strictly speaking, correct. What about aiming for a more pragamtic middle ground?

While meme-talk isn’t necessarily the most advanced form of rhetoric, these expressions are part of contemporary culture, along with their imperfect grammar. It feels silly not to use them (and other internet-generated phrases du jour), at least in some contexts (not to mention ironically!).

Why so harsh? (Image by Photosteve101, CC BY 2.0)

All because of a comma splice?! (Image by photosteve101, CC BY 2.0)

Give your writing a taste of the foreign

Many of us live in international communities, with people speaking English with a whole variety of accents and dialects. It’s often through listening to others that we come to terms with the strangeness of our own language, and incorporating some of this insight into your writing can make it more interesting.

The effects can range from the comical to the poignant. Think, for example, of how Russian speakers often omit the definite article in English (“Can I have pencil, please?”), imbuing specific objects with a touch of universality. Or how speakers of languages with gendered nouns — German, French, Hebrew, Spanish, etc. — will often refer to an inanimate object as a he or a she (try deciding whether your desk, or your eyes, are male or female: it can be hilarious. And/or touching).

Tip: When channeling speakers who use grammar differently, whether they’re foreign or belong to a different community, you might want to take extra care making sure what you’re writing doesn’t come off as parody. 

It’s all in the dosage

Imagine a 1000-word blog post written entirely in lolspeak (moar nightmarez, pleaze!). If you survived that thought, imagine, now, a sharply-written piece on electoral reform, into which you drop, mid-way, a sentence with awful feline grammar (“we can haz moar votes,” for example). Context is always key, but so is dosage: whether you use bad grammar for comic effect or otherwise, keeping it limited to specific moments will only make it more powerful.

There might not be a ready-made formula for how much grammatical idiosyncrasy is too much of a good (bad) thing. As a general rule, though, if your reader can no longer know whether you’re making errors intentionally or not, it might be a good idea to dial it down a bit. No one has ever complained about too much clean, clear prose.

What’s your take on grammar? Are there cases where it’s fine to relax the rules a bit? Have you used (or seen) any creative uses of alternative grammar? We’d love to hear your input.

144 Comments

  1. Great post. I’m not the best writer so I tend to go the conversational route in my posts by just writing the way I would talk to someone as if I were having a conversation with them.

  2. Grammar mistakes drive me mad, especially when I make them myself. On my blog, I give things a read through and hope I don’t miss any mistakes, but I’m working on a novel and when I finish that I will use the find tool to check every ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ I have used it correct. But I often am not concentrating when I write comments enough to check my grammar, and in texts it’s just whatever autocorrect comes up with.

  3. In school, I aced my grammar classes. The teacher and my parents were the only ones who cared. In life, I couldn’t stop talking. One sentence could be five minutes long and contain all those grammar mistakes you speak of. Then I had children and grandchildren that could not spell because they learned to read and write with phonics and spell in “text”. Grammar rules don’t seem to be worth pointing at or arguing about when you are struggling to even comprehend their “language”.
    What do I really think? Learn the rules first, then break them.

    1. I think your last sentence really nails it — you can’t improvise creatively without having mastered the skill first.

      1. Agree! I think learning the rules gives you a mastery that lets you see it for what it is – a set of arbitrarily rules derived from current patterns. If you break the rules unintentionally, you might be part of a general zeitgeist, but you might not. Master those rules, and you can step outside of them to drive new patterns.

      2. You don’t think that you can play and the learn rules at the same time? How do toddlers learn anything? Not doing things because you are not yet good at them can really shrink your world.

      3. You can definitely play and learn at the same time — not to mention that many people write brilliant, creative posts with nothing but standard grammar. I don’t think it’s necessarily about being “good” at something (like writing), as much as about being aware of why you do certain things.

  4. I am paranoid about making mistakes. I tend to cringe when I see them on posts, because many of them could have been avoided by careful reading before hitting the “publish” button. Having said that, I get very angry when I see comments from people who obviously enjoy embarrassing or criticizing other bloggers just for the satisfaction of grammatical one-upmanship. That’s not what blogging is about, and not everyone is worried about the grammatical perfection of what they write – there should be room for everyone in the blogosphere.

    1. I agree with you! We blog for fun and to learn from others, not to be perfectly grammatically correct. But some on WordPress are or are trying to be authors of books who probably need to be or learn to be more grammatically correct. Although I am not trying to be an author, I do want to learn to be correct in my writing grammar, but like you said, I don’t want “grammatical one-upmanship” in my face.

    2. I also cringe at my own errors. On the business side I want to be taken seriously, and I don’t take business people seriously when they don’t take their communication seriously.
      But I agree with you about “grammatical one-upmanship”.
      Serious or humorous bloopers I sometime reveal to bloggers I have come to know. If they correct them, I expect them to delete my comment. But If I don’t know you, I haven’t earned the the right.

  5. Since English isn’t my first language, it’s easy to make mistakes. I always spell check my posts, but that just fixes the words; every other mistake is up to me to catch. I probably miss a lot, but at least I’m trying ;)

    1. I think we non native speakers make different mistakes, but not necessarily more of them. Internalised rules from our native languages carry over easily, and something that “feels” completely right can turn out hilariously wrong. For example, I’d never try to write english slang. I know I don’t have enough understanding of the subtleties often transported by slang, and it would probably result in something insanely silly. Like a conglomerat of Aussie-Texan-Scottish expressions I picked up somewhere in the depths of the internetz without any understanding of their meaning or origin. On the other hand, I’d never evah confuse their/there/they’re or its/it’s or where/were/we’re, because all these words mean something completely different, and my inner ear isn’t so adjusted to the mere sound of a word that I’d mix up its meaning just because it sounds the same.
      For what it’s worth, I’m pretty glad there’s still a common basis for this language that’s accepted (even if it’s not practiced) among all english-speakers. What I learned in school 20 years ago isn’t entirely redundant (yet).

  6. I believe, the issue is not in the “improvisation”, but in not actually “knowing”. I mentioned to someone the other day how “should OF” is absolutely not acceptable, if you want to sound somewhat intelligent. They didn’t even know what in the world I was talking about…
    My other favorite is “eXpecially”. That’s a BIG one. The other day I was watching an educational youtube video about certain grammatical rules, and the narrator actually said “eXpecially”. I even had my husband listen to it 10 times, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining. Too funny. And sad.

    1. Referring to your comment about “should of,” I could have been one of those people that wrote that even though I know it isn’t grammatically correct. Many of us talk this way so much that we tend to automatically think it is grammatically correct. One of the commenters said that if we proofread our writing more before pushing the publish button, we would likely find these errors. I am going to be sure to proof read my posts before I push “publish.”

      1. Actually, most of us say “should ‘a.” If we’d write like we speak, we’d really have a hard time understanding one another. DJa know what I mean?
        Took me a bit one day to figure out what a francophone friend meant when she asked, “What did you hate for supper?”

      2. The context, i.e., the situation one is in, determines a lot of people’s responses to grammatical errors. A lot is forgiven in chats and text messages. Forgiveness is shown in blogs; though as several of you have pointed out, to a lesser degree. Where my tolerance stops is when I come across a typo in a book, a professional journal, or professional website. Grammar snobs and grammar police should not have to worry here, as editors and proofreaders should be carefully reading material before sending to publisher or hitting the “Submit” button.

  7. It has been a while since I have taken grammar in school, so I know my grammar has a lot to be desired. I try hard to learn by reading others’ posts. There is one word I have been coming across a lot that still drives me a little crazy, but obviously is now grammatically accepted; the word is “Learnt.” For me, growing up, that was a HUGE no-no.

    1. “Learnt” is actually a great example of regional variance — it’s the perfectly normal in British English, whereas it would sound strange — if not outright wrong — to many American speakers.

  8. This is a blog filled with people of different skills and knowledge. This is not a place were professional authors display their craft. If so, all of you would have to be paying them and should expect excellent grammar and spelling because all professional authors have editors. Were hear too interchange ideals. lol I believe expecting a high level of professional quality editing does not promote the kind of communications from people we want, who do this in their spare time. When people correct me, as I am often rushed, lazy or just stupid, I generally ignore them.

    1. I agree, although I was a bit nervous until I came to your ‘lol’.
      I have a very kind wife who reads through most of what I write. That helps, but there isn’t always the time.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this post. Although I have always been an advocate of correct spelling and proper grammar, I really do think that we should all lighten up. We need more laughter in the world. Plz.

  10. Wow! All I can say is wow! This is really amazing. I’m neither a writer nor nor grammarian, but this makes a whole lot of sense. It’s sometimes hard to correct somebody who makes a lot of grammatical errors, especially in writing. I equally live in a community filled with so many foreigners; people of different races, diverse culture, different dialects and accents, and trying to sometimes correct them isn’t easy; not at all! My brother sometimes gets angry when I try to correct him, but you know, some people hate to be corrected. So, I think this post is really important for a blogger like me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, feelings, ideas and opinion.

  11. I came across an article in our local paper that mentioned ‘legible’ voters (we have an election coming up). It comes from our TV commentators constantly talking about ‘ilegible’ voters….

  12. I can’t begin to tell u how it drives me nuts trying make everything just right in order that people can understand clearly what i’m trying to not only say but express, as well. English is definitely a very complex language. u may have everything u want to say already organized and ready to go in your mind, but once u start typing, it can become very difficult. I also think that the computer is a difficult thing to use to truly express your thoughts.

  13. I use contractions when writing in a conversational style and throw in an occasional “gotta” when using the expression, “I gotta believe…” I used that particular bad grammar in my last post about sex and the aging female. It depends on the topic!

  14. I am German and started blogging in English to improve myself. It´s funny if I compare my 2011 or 2012 articles with my newer articles. It´s awkward to read. But I am sure that I will do say the same in 2015 about my 2014 articles. :D

    To be honest, I do think reading helped me out a lot and writing “learning by doing” too anyhow. But sometimes I do still ask myself if I should really hurt the English speaking readers with my attempts to perfect my English. Sometimes I do wonder if I hurt them on this way. Some said yes, while others encouraged me to keep going.

    Concluding, I got more compliments in 2013 and 2014 than before. I really hope, that I am on a good way. :D All I want is being perfect in English.

  15. I only wish my grammar was as polished and perfected as I like to think it is. Parts of speech, tenses, and punctuation still elude me on occasion. In regard to my blog, I type first in Microsoft before posting, reviewing spelling, grammar, fragments, and punctuation, etc. Most errors I can catch on my own, but that second set review is always a bonus!
    However, despite the moments I doubt my ability, my sons (17 & 19) correct grammar on Facebook – and there is nothing like or funnier than a Facebook grammar hound to shake up a good comments section!!

  16. When is it Politically correct to abbreviate the English diction? Why should we! And when?.Do we relax our grammar because of the fast paced world in which we live or do we rely to heavily on computerised technology! Let’s face it most programmes running today has a spell check facility; this one included. Try a little test on yourself and write a piece without the checker, you may be surprised!. All said and done we are losing the touch because very few of us actually put pen to paper because it is much easier to type, maybe we should all write a letter MANUALLY just to get back the magic of personalising written communication.

    1. Programmes are plural, hence programmes have spell check, but spellcheck doesn’t alter the wrong words in the wrong place, eg bare and bear, nor do they add grammatical correctness. I’ll add a comment at the bottom rather than hijack yours further.

  17. To be honest, I don’t think I can write effectively without acting like I’m talking to someone in particular. It makes writing factual and formal essays a pain where the sun doesn’t shine.

    I still make basic spelling and punctuation errors on a nine-to-five basis, so I often find myself editing the same blog post three hundred times until I finally get it right.

  18. I managed to write “interior motive” yesterday, and then spelled ulterior with an a whilst trying to correct myself. That was a bad day. One of my pet peeves is when I see the word defiantly used instead of definitely. “I defiantly need to get my hair cut.” You rebel!!

  19. I’m a bit of a Grammar Police Officer and I learnt it from my father, who always cringes when listening to a teenager put the word ‘like’ in a sentence twenty times. We are both also devoted advocates of the ‘James and I went to the shops’ and ‘David is going to collect James and me from school’ debate. Nothing worse than the odd ‘Me and Hannah are going to the movies’!
    We both find the ‘memespeak’ and ‘lolspeak’ reasonably Orwellian, but I think that the use of horrible spelling and grammar can be used ironically and for literary effect (oh my gosh the amount of times I’ve seen the wrong ‘effect/affect’…).
    I think that the rules of true, proper grammar should always be adhered to unless there is a SPECIFIC REASON that it was INTENTIONALLY broken.
    Have a nice day.

    1. I used to have the worst trouble with affect/effect because nobody ever took the time to explain that one is a verb and the other a noun. I get it now, but I remember not to be hard on people because sometimes somethings were just never explained to them. I mean I have my grammar pet peeves too for sure, but still. Also I think sometimes the specific reason is just personality, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  20. Using vaguely conversational nuances make up my writing! It’s great to write like you’re having a conversation with the reader, because it makes them feel more involved in what they’re reading. Love this post <3

  21. I love how you bring up that grammatical errors should be clearly intentional to the reader. It’s perfectly warranted in some cases, but I don’t think I will ever get over your/you’re and there/they’re/their mix-ups. Those drive me “cray.” :P

  22. ‘Imagine a 1000-word blog post written entirely in lolspeak (moar nightmaresz pleaze!).’
    The Horror. I think my eyes and brain would simultaneously swell and explode from trying to translate. While I know my grammar is far from perfect; there are times I feel it is essential in giving a clear, concise message of your thoughts and ideas. Just the thought of even one paragraph in lolspeak makes my face hurt from the thought of being forced to read it! Great post, much food for thought on that one. Thanks!

    1. Reading all these comments makes me think; are we all guilty of the Apps constantly forced down our throats, let’s all be honest here, do you use grammar correctly when texting UR buddies!!! Say no more.

      1. When I’m texting my buddies I feel less inclined to worry about how I sound, because I know they’re hearing my voice saying it as they read it. They know me, therefore I can choose however I wish to text without worrying about my meaning becoming lost in translation.

        Not so for blog subscribers.

        Grammar I can handle most of the time, it’s really spelling that will drive me bonkers. As another commented, ‘defiantly’ being used in place of ‘definitely’……..seriously? Can they not pop on dictionary.reference.com to check that out? Really, it takes all of two seconds and saves a little face. Whether english is a first or second language is moot; there’s plenty of reference material on and off of the internet so one can differentiate. I’ve read the different ‘realize’ and ‘realise’ and feel neither is wrong as they do depend on the dialect of said blogger/author/writer. I’ve read many different authors and notice depending on where they are from, their personal writing style, spelling, and grammar varies widely; but doesn’t ultimately detract from their stories.

  23. For those wanting to brush up on their written English skills or pick up some new tips, you might find my Style Matters series of 50 posts of some use (http://reporting4work.com.au/category/journalism/style-matters/ where the latest of the series is and you can work back over five pages to the beginning). Feel free to add your feedback to any of them. Warning: They were written mostly for an Australian audience, so I hope that’s “foreign” enough for you :)

  24. I recall the late Les Dawson who could play the piano badly for comedic effect. The same principle would apply to writing, though I’ve usually considered grammar to refer to punctuation and correct usage rather than dialect changes (regional or generational). I enjoy creating new words to express a particular thought, and I hope this comes across as a comedic device rather than poor education ROFL

    1. Les Dawson was a genius, do you know how much of a skill it is to play the piano that bad when you are an accomplished pianist. When you are trained to a particular level its difficult to make a mistake, but if your training is impeded in some way then mistakes are made. Some people are not as lucky as some, some do not have the education which because of illhess, disability, unemployment and we should not be critical of their writings but leave them alone and read what they have wrote.

      Btw this post won’t stay long as WP has a problem with my comments and ignore my emails

  25. I once taught ESL to Korean students. I realized then how difficult the English language is to explain to non-English speakers.

    When a student asked me the difference between “cute, attractive, lovely, pleasant, pretty, beautiful, gorgeous and awesome,” I had to give it a lot of thought. I finally told him that “wow” leaves the door open for any interpretation the other party wants to give it!

    And good grammar??? Well, it’s extremely helpful regardless (NOT irregardless!) the language we speak.

    Great post. Thank you!

  26. I think in whatever language we decided to write our blog, we always need to take grammar seriously. If I do break the grammar rules, I do it on purpose. English is not my first language, so forgive me if I make grammar mistake to write this comment.

  27. This is very helpful haha!! I’m always in need for guidance in grammars…and if possible, may I ask for some assistance in checking my writings on my blog at wherewordsbreathe.wordpress.com? I don’t think my works are great, but it would be very much appreciated if I know how to write better, by learning from other writers’ comments and suggestions. Thank you once again!

    1. I am not perfect nor worthy of helping but with the little I know, I sure can help you the best way I can. I don’t know if I’m right nor wrong, but don’t you think it’s better to say I’m always in need of *not for guidance in grammar? Take care!

  28. I appreciate this post a great deal. But it is curious how many writers are published that have erroneous or plain broken-down grammar and poorly constructed sentences. And these books sell!I have been in writing groups where other writers suggested I use incomplete sentences for emphasis and a certain effect. I have done that and I get the point. But it still bothers me.

    1. I think it really just varies from person to person. I mean, I use incomplete sentences like I’m getting paid (I’m not though), but if it’s not your style you don’t have to. I always say don’t write something that you’re not comfortable with.

      1. I agree, and I am open to experimentation.I think the question in the end is: how critical is a traditionally correct and common grammar in our language, anymore? If there is leeway for psychosocial reasons, then where do we draw the line, or do we need to draw it boldly at all? What scares me if kids who are writing with words that do not have any vowels!

    2. What bothers me more is reading a book or article from a professional magazine/journal and coming across spelling and/or grammatical errors? How well was the material proofread before it went to print?

  29. It’s pretty funny that I saw this post tonight. I just completed and published a post for Tipsy Lit’s weekly prompt on writing with accents. It was incredibly difficult and had me constantly seeking writing guidelines online. I’m sure I still made several mistakes. It was tough to find a balance between writing with in a dialect/accent without totally sabotaging the rules and/or making the character seem dis-ingenuous. Especially since it was only my second time attempting to write fiction.

    I was glad to hear you talk about leniency in using formal grammar in order to add flavor. I am a bit of a grammar nerd but tend to write like I speak. It’s a curse really.

  30. Writing in prose, grammar is the backbone of every sentence. Grammatical rules and the usage of words changes according to the times. In school, I was being punished by my teacher for using “brake” as a verb. That was more than 60 years ago. Now, it can be used.
    “There is a man and a woman at the gate” or “There are a man and a woman at the gate”
    “A number of children is waiting for you.” or “A number of children are waiting for you”
    These and many more are very confusing. Could you please comment.
    That’s why I try to write and express in verse in my blog!

    1. Agree with Daisy. There is a man and a woman, is really shorthand for there is a man and there is a woman, hence there is. Or, thinking differently, there is a couple or a pair.

      Children is a plural noun, so needs a plural verb. You aren’t describing the number, but the children. But things change, eg I would describe a football team as singular. Common usage has made it plural.

    2. Regarding the first example, there is not a contracted form of “there are” and many Americans will contract the words in speech, saying, “there’s.” This word carries over into writing, explaining why a lot of people write, “There is a man and a woman at the gate.” While this sounds correct to many people, the correct form should be, “There are a man and a woman at the gate.”

      In the second example, “a number of children,” the word “number” is a collective noun. Rules for subject-verb agreement with collective nouns are dependent upon the variety of English. American English speakers are more likely to use the singular verb with a collective noun (A number of children is…), whereas British English speakers are more likely to use the plural (A number of children are…).

  31. I have to admit, I’m horrified by the thought of making grammar mistakes on my blog. There have been times when I’ve heavily edited a post, published it confidently, and come home from work later that day to discover that I’d made a mistake (grammar, typo, etc.) or three. On those occasions, my face turns slightly pink from embarrassment, even though there’s nobody here pointing it out!

    I enjoyed this article. My own posts may be fairly unremarkable, but the thing I like about blogging is that it’s a great way for someone to let his or her personality shine through via the written word. For me, ultimately, great content trumps perfect grammar. I do have trouble reading heavy-lolspeak text without getting annoyed, but overall, I love how easy it is to share – either by reading or writing – experiences with others (and revel in our myriad differences!) through our blogs.

    1. You don’t want to hear this. Grammar is a noun, not an adjective. Mistakes is also a noun. If you wish to describe your mistakes you should use grammatical. ie grammatical mistakes or, instead but clumsy, mistakes of/with/in grammar. But not grammar mistakes. Just thought you would like to be horrified.

      I agree incidentally, that content is all.

      1. I find that I often make grammatical errors when I post or comment very late at night. This comment, which was made late last night, is a perfect example! I’m not horrified, though.

  32. I love this post, thank you. You and my Mother would get along like a house on fire! She has been known to take to shopping centre signs with a red pen. Seriously! I cant help a good exclamation mark and have an inbuilt dose of ‘grammar guilt’ in my blog. Mum offered to edit it the other day for me and was slightly upset with my nonchalant response. Are smiley faces deemed acceptable :). Anyway thank you for your blog it is a great read. Now I want to write thx and add a xx just to be cheeky.

  33. Grammar is such an interesting thing – I love how this post calls attention to the fact that grammar really depends on culture. My correct grammar isn’t necessarily your correct grammar.

    I also find that the definition of correct grammar varies on the piece. The grammar and style I use for my blog posts is not the same I use for writing academic papers.

    Great insight and fun read!

  34. e.e. Cummings=grammar at it’s finest.
    But I’m totally a conversational writer. Like I sometimes include the unnecessary “like, um, and, y’know” to remind people not to take me too seriously.

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