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Do the Grammar Police Inhibit Progress?

Posted by on Jan 10, 2013 | 9 Comments

graded paperThis off-topic rant was entirely fueled by my friend Trisha re-posting a picture from grammarly.com’s Facebook account. The picture said “Vote to stop the use of the word irregardless today! Like to cast your vote!” It created a conversation that resulted in 53 comments as of Wednesday evening. I initially responded with a somewhat douchey comment just to start a fun argument, but it turned into a surprisingly deep conversation.

The gist of Trisha’s point- we need good grammar in order to effectively share ideas.

he gist of my points-

  • First, “irregardless” is a word even though it does not enjoy standard usage status.
  • Second, there is no consensus authority to determine what is and is not grammatically correct (which includes grammarly.com.)
  • Third (and most importantly), the exclusion of written ideas based on arbitrary “rightness” or “wrongness” of details such as grammar ultimately hurt us as a society.

My first two points are pretty self-explanatory and don’t really warrant much more discussion.

The third point does, however.

Grammar (and spelling) are essentially a set of rules. Most of us learn these rules from a very early age. The problem- there is no central clearinghouse to determine what is and is not correct. Most of us probably agree on some things, but certainly not all. Many people will claim to know the “correct” grammar rules, but where does their authority originate? I’ve met a lot of English teachers that insist on a specific usage of language because it was “correct.”

The authority issue pales in comparison to the effects of this perceived “rightness.” Let’s take writing as an example. The purpose of writing is to share ideas. If we insist on a certain minimum standard of grammatical correctness, we automatically eliminate those that do not reach that arbitrary minimum proficiency. A person may have brilliant ideas, but we choose to ignore them because the person uses the word “irregardless.”

In short- insisting on a specific grammar acts as a barrier to the free sharing of ideas. That may have been a good strategy back when publishers and editors acted as gatekeepers to determine who was worthy of entering the world of “professional” writers.

The world is changing, however.

The Internet has caused a great democratization of thought sharing. Anyone can now freely share information with any other person worldwide. Each one of us has become our own publisher. This gives us unlimited opportunity to learn from each other… if only we support the freedom to communicate.

Insisting on the use of proper grammar is another way of saying “You’re not worthy of contributing; your ideas are invalid.”

Calls insisting on proper grammar is a last-ditch effort of the old guard trying to protect their long-lost power as gatekeepers.

If we really want to capitalize on the power of the Internet to share ideas, we have to learn to accept all communication. We have to learn to decipher that which may be difficult to understand. If we really want to open ourselves up to open communication and the opportunity to learn, we have to take the responsibility of interpretation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t throw out the study of grammar altogether. There will always be those that refuse to digest communications that don’t meet a minimum level of grammatical proficiency. As such, the information we share will reach a broader audience if we play be their rules. Besides, it’s fun to learn new things and push boundaries. Also, it’s a lot more fun antagonizing the grammar police when you know which laws to break. :-)

Thoughts? I know many of my friends are sticklers for grammar rules. I also know a lot of my friends don’t give a damn about grammar. Finally, I know a select few share my ideas of the free exchange of ideas and oppose all attempts at creating or maintaining barriers and gatekeepers. What are your thoughts?

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9 Comments

  1. Bob Downtown Runner
    January 21, 2013

    Communication, in whatever form, language, or activity, is only effective when both parties have a common understanding of the “rules”.

    Imagine a pharmacist filling your prescription after your doctor decided to take liberty with the conventional terminology for writing said prescription.

    Imagine the pilot of your plane taking instructions from an Air Traffic Controller who decides to cut corners in his instructions because the “old guard” is out of touch.

    You get the idea.

    I’m all for creativity. But ignoring time-tested ways to use the written and spoken word in conventional ways reduces your audience and causes some to question your intelligence.

    And I wonder whether some or most of those who would throw out the “old” rules simply do not want to spend the time to learn them.

    I’m not a nazi about it. I work with and manage people that have poor grammar and I rarely say anything. But it does cause me to have to probe further to make sure I understand what they are really trying to express.

  2. Wayne
    January 11, 2013

    Bad grammar _is_ a barrier to communication. If I read a sentence which contains the word “you’re” instead of “your”, then I either misunderstand or I need to re-read the sentence in order to get the meaning of what’s being communicated.

    Everyone should read this book:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eats,_Shoots_%26_Leaves

  3. John Y.
    January 10, 2013

    “We have to learn to decipher that which may be difficult to understand” I agree, but the years spent in schooling have been voided by the argument that I should disallow proper grammar because: 1). The internet said so, 2). Someone else was either too lazy to learn how to interpret, formulate, and express ideas and, 3). Everyone else is doing so (???).

    I accept the fact that grammar and spelling are an antiquated means of expression (check any series of Facebook posts…I had one person say, “gonna tare into the opponent”. Really? You’re gonna set your opponent’s weight to zero after you’ve weighed him???)but we need to keep at least some sense of both. How else does one fill out a proper job application with nonexistent spelling skills? How does one expound upon questions of your ability to process information, solve problems, and work with others??? When you see this question: “Describe, in detail, a major problem at your current job and the steps you took to solve it.” If you answer with, “I decided I wanted to fastly tare into it to solve the problem so I did it and your gonna love this the boss was soooo stoked he bogt me lunch”, then don’t complain that you did your best and did not get the job. Yes, it is (apparently) OK to slack off a bit on the internet forums or when venting how awful a day you’re having on Facebook. But when a discussion arises, be it on a job application, Op/Ed piece, reviewing a pair of shoes, whatever form the discussion takes, I feel it’s necessary to keep up to standard with your spelling and grammar. And please keep the all caps to a minimum.

  4. Ben W
    January 10, 2013

    Kindness towards mistakes is a great virtue as is clarity of written thought.

    Neither trumps the other, but both are great cards in the hand of a person that wishes to understand the other.

    • Jason
      January 10, 2013

      Wise words, Ben, wise words.

      • Ben W
        January 10, 2013

        Weirdly, I just started reading David Foster Wallace’s essay on this same subject “Authority and American Usage”. His take is a bit of a hill climb, but you like… climb mountains and stuff.

        ***Begin Quote:
        THESIS STATEMENT FOR WHOLE ARTICLE

        Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in U.S. English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a “Democratic Spirit.” A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a very difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a D.S.’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity — you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.
        End Quote***

        The whole text is available online with a short search if you like the above.

  5. Hobbit
    January 10, 2013

    Correct grammar and correct spelling of a given language are there to facilitate communication between a writer and a reader. If the writer doesn’t bother with grammar and spelling, why should the reader bother with deciphering weird constellations of letters and words?
    For non native speakers like me, correct grammar and spelling are essential to be able to look up words and meaning.
    A personal interpretation of spelling and inventing new words would have the same effects as a secret language – you would need to be initiated to understand.
    By the way, and only out of curiosity, what is “irregardless” supposed to mean?

  6. Dave
    January 10, 2013

    You are right that there is no central clearing house for the rules of grammar. The rules vary from necessary (for clarity) to arbitrary (by convention) but except for some edge cases they are 99% agreed upon. Clearly, the rules will evolve over time, but at any given point in time/locale, they do exist.

    The question is whether or not following the rules matters.

    Right or wrong, people do use grammar as a litmus test for intelligence, attention to detail. I have to admit that whenever I read something like “Your going to see alot of me irregardless of…” I cringe, and assume the writer is an idiot.

    If you are communicating informally between friends, or don’t care what people think of you, feel free to use whatever grammar you see fit. But if you want your resume, angry letter, or online comments to be taken seriously, sticking to the ‘rules’ of grammar is a good idea.

    And no, I’m neither a grammar Nazi or expert, and I’m sure I make plenty of mistakes (probably in this sentence). I do believe however that adjusting how you communicate for different audiences is a basic skill of human communication. If you want to be respected by your CEO, your 3-year-old, or your favorite blogger, you need to communicate in the manner that makes sense for that situation, even if it means adhering to arbitrary grammar rules.

    • Dave
      January 10, 2013

      BTW, yes, I noticed a couple of mistakes in my post immediately after submitting it. Sue me.