A Letter to the Grammar Police

Dear Grammar Police,

You know who you are. You are probably quite proud of your ability to spot a minor punctuation infraction and proceed to freak out about it. You’re the type of person who posts things like this on Facebook along with some sort of comment like “EXACTLY! Thank you! “

You know the rules, all the rules, and you can smell the stench of those not following them properly. You think because these people didn’t follow the rules in their Facebook status update, they must not know them. They must not be smart. They must not have paid attention in fifth grade (or whatever grade it is you cling to as being the source of all things sacred in life). But you paid attention! You’re smart! You didn’t forget! Thanks for not letting us forget that you are occupying an entire section of your brain to retain every single grammar rule.

Now, I know you mean well. In fact, you are probably my friend. I probably like you a lot when you aren’t reading something, scanning for mistakes. And I’ll even be fair, here. Maybe you aren’t even looking for grammar mistakes. Maybe you’re just a grammar mistake magnet and run-on sentences just jump off the page and fuse to your brain and the only way you can reach any sort of relief is if you whip out your red pen or make some kind of patronizing comment. (Phew!) But as someone with a modest education and teeny bit of insight about language, I’d love for you to let me talk to you about your obsession today.

I don’t want you to think I’m against any and all grammar guidelines. I believe there is a time and a place for perfect grammar. Perfect grammar belongs in grammar class for people who have never learned the rules (some children but mostly second language learners), and at least a certain level of adherence to grammar rules belongs in school papers and published materials. When I say a certain level of adherence, I mean the message and meaning shouldn’t get lost in your lack of or overuse of punctuation and capitalization. Because let’s get real here, the purpose of writing something is to share information or convey an idea, not to exercise your knowledge of grammar rules. The rules are tools we use to keep the message clear and avoid ambiguity. The most important thing is the information. The content. The idea. (WHOA, incomplete sentences for emphasis!) If you understood the message the way the writer intended, let’s discuss the idea not whether or not the writer should have used a comma.

You might actually be surprised at how much you understand when reading something riddled with mistakes. Studies in literacy have found our brains have the incredible ability to fill in missing information to make sense out of incomplete or jumbled junk. For example:

If my previous employer were to read this letter to you, she’d probably freak. I spent a year at a university writing lab during my graduate studies tutoring struggling students with their language and writing skills. I also taught English writing skills to second language learners at the same university. Being in those positions meant I spent a lot of time discussing and pondering the application of grammar rules. This fact along with being a native speaker means I have practically mastered all of the points large and small having to do with English grammar. But I don’t care much about it and in my leisurely correspondence, I often flagrantly goof. When I goof, Grammar Police, surely you judge me. I don’t care about that, either.

I don’t care because you judging my grammar misdemeanors, I argue, reflects more poorly on you than it does me. If you were to research the history of English prescriptivism and standard form (which of course you should, as this is your specialty and a good, accesible place to start would be The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch, though there are many other books on the topic) you would arrive at the fact that your grand cause which you use to define who you are and who I am is based quite heavily on nothing. There is nothing sacred about grammar rules. Some self-appointed Grand Master of the English language (a rich dude with a big ego and nothing to do) in the 17th century sat down and made up a bunch of rules that he thought made sense and preserved the “purity” of the English language. But they didn’t make sense, and the English language has never been “pure”, nor has any other language. These rules were a way to arbitrarily create a standard that automatically made the way one group used language correct and everybody else incorrect. Because of the rule makers’ influence, these grammar guidelines wormed their way into modern pedagogy and then into your brain.

By worshipping these rules you are in a loose sense worshipping class dividing propaganda. You’re proliferating the idea that the way some rich white guy in England spoke and wrote 350 years ago is smarter and better than the way a poor black kid in urban America speaks and writes today, because that rich white guy said so and he had the means to promote his ideas. This kind of small and obedient thought leads to inequality and discrimination.  Now of course you don’t mean to do this. Of course not. So why is it, then, that you do?

Now I actually wrote a research paper about that very question. What I concluded is that you’re using your mastering (though even that is up for debate, because more often than not you are wrong sometimes, too) of these meaningless rules to place yourself in a higher social rung than the so-called language abusers. This is an easy, cheap and accessible way to confidently say “I’m smarter than you because I never use your when you’re should be used.” It’s a quick way to stroke your ego. Aren’t you clever. Aren’t you witty. That’s lame. You should stop it.

But it’s hard to stop, isn’t it? The world communicates today with the written word more and more. Texts and emails have trumped phone calls and face-to-face meetings. The internet and social media has allowed everyone access to one another’s written self-expressions, and everyone but you is just screwing up left and right providing you with a seemingly endless stream of material to critique. You don’t let us know gently and empathetically when we’ve violate the rules, either. You call us out right then and there and then post a collection of your best and most humorous responses for everyone to marvel at how nothing gets past you and what a quick wit you have.

Electronic and social media is the source of other grating annoyances for you, too. You have a really hard time embracing any new words, acronyms, spellings or expressions that deviate from anything you might find in a 1995 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine or that fifth grade grammar textbook bible of yours. The English language is changing rapidly and you have a hard time with this change. If you don’t understand a new construction that makes it harder for you to be the master, therefore it most definitely is bad. No good. A bastardization of “the best language in the world”. I urge you to gain some perspective (again, read about this topic) and realize that  your perfect standard form was once considered a bastardization as well.

This new world of communication dependent upon literacy has demanded more efficiencies from the language, and there are millions of people out there experimenting and developing these efficiencies through deviations from the standard form every day. These “mistakes” are progressive. Evolutionary. Revolutionary. You are old and stuffy and irrelevant. There is no amount of rules or constraints or social pressures that can truly succeed in stagnating a living language. Your cause is a self fulfilling one. It has nothing to do with the English language.

That’s all there is. There isn’t any more. (name that book!)

The end.

Love, Emily

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1 Response to “A Letter to the Grammar Police”


  1. 1 VMK March 13, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Well said. Thanks for this.


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