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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Grammar War Rages On

He's a comma; not a sperm cell.

As a “descriptivist,” I try to describe language as it is used. As a “prescriptivist,” you focus on how language should be used. If we were from the two extremes, I would open fire by saying that you preach stodgy nonrules that most people don’t obey, and that people like you don’t understand that language must grow and change. You would then call me a permissivist who ignores the fact that people can use language incompetently or well, and that people want to write and speak well.
-Robert Lane Greene New York Times


I am fascinated by grammar and I would probably have a pretty good grip on it if it weren’t for the fact that I have chosen to spread my knowledge of the subject across several languages. I think my grasp of Spanish and French rules of syntax is more than adequate but I wouldn’t venture to include myself amongst the elite in either language.  I work constantly to improve my grammar in French and Spanish but I am far more concerned with amplifying my vocabulary. If I don’t understand something it’s because I don’t understand a word, it’s not because my grammar is at fault. I am always open to improving my grammar in English in order to write as clearly as possible.

What serves as the mooring of language is literature.  If most people aren’t reading I’m afraid that the ship of a sturdy grammar has already sailed.  The handful of grammar dorks and curiosity seekers to be found here have been thrown overboard by a post-literate society. Without literature our language will mutate exponentially like Haitian Creole and could become so unrecognizable that these arguments over “that” and “which” will seem completely without perspective, like arguing over whether the Nazi policy of “no shoes, no shirt, no service” was unjust.

To bother over grammar trivia is petty; to be concerned over the meaning of language is not.  As I have said many times, language is the wine and grammar is merely the vessel. Whether it is drunk from a crystal goblet or a plastic cup matters less than the quality of the product.  I would rather read something that has something to say than a well-written essay about nothing. 

I find grammar Nazis to be completely foolish. I would wager that people who harp about the misuse of “literally” and the use of invented words like “irregardless” have never written anything worth reading.  Anyone who corrects someone’s grammar without being asked is being a complete douche bag. Worry about your own damn grammar. What I care about is what someone has to say and how they say it. Of course, problems often arise because some people’s grammar is so utterly atrocious that their words lack meaning, but minor faults in grammar rarely hinder communication.  Taken in context it’s actually pretty hard to butcher spelling and grammar enough to hide the meaning.  I save my criticism for the content, not the grammar.

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