cc photo courtesy of lewishamdreamer on flickr

Grammar Police Brutality 

An open letter to the the Grammar Police

Dear Grammar Police,

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about why I resigned from your ranks. I got some great responses, some in agreement with me and some challenging me further. We had a really interesting, insightful, and respectful conversation going on. I learned a lot from the discussion. You can’t always say that about the internet, and I’m grateful.

But I feel compelled to point out to you, dear Grammar Police, that some of the work you've been doing lately isn't your best. Once upon a time I thought you were the defenders of language. However I've seen a few things recently that make me worry that your focus has shifted. I fear you've lost sight of the language for the grammar, so to speak. And when you love grammar more than the language it facilitates, well, there’s something rotten in the state of Merriam-Webster. Let me elaborate.

Exhibit A: Lack of imagination

Last week I saw a woman tweet a writer to say she liked his book.

Why did she appreciate it?

Because she is a self-professed grammar snob and he “writes very well”! To be fair, she only had 140 characters to work with. Still, that’s what you tell a professional writer who has worked hard on an interesting book for months? “I like your writing mechanics, they satisfy my anal tendencies”? The author tweeted back “Phew! Thanks” and I’m pretty sure he was being a bit cheeky if not outright derisive. Fair enough, I say. Someone blithely ignored the entire substance of his book because she couldn’t see past the grammar. That’s probably a little annoying.

Exhibit B: Insensitivity

Yesterday I woke to the news that Ariel Castro, the Ohio man recently convicted of holding three women captive for the past decade, among many other heinous crimes, had hanged himself. Of course it didn’t take long for the Grammar Police to arrive on the scene. I read several tweets chastising others for reporting that he had “hung” himself. One even ended in a snarky “You’re welcome.” (A lot of tweets correcting various grammatical misdemeanours seem to end in “you’re welcome.” What’s the matter, Grammar Police, are people not thanking you for your efforts of their own accord?)

Yeah, “hung” is technically incorrect. Initially I was worried we’d be bogged down by concern for Castro’s victims and how they’re handling this development. What a relief that you directed our attention to the real matter at hand: grammar.

Exhibit C: You’re mean to your friends

Here are some real tweets from your fellow grammar police. They posted them publicly and they’re clearly quite proud of their refined grammatical sensibilities, but I figured in the name of stopping the shame train I’d give them a break and not take screenshots:

  1. “If you say ‘I seen…’ We can’t be friends.. Sorry lol #grammarpolice
  2. “I can’t help but laugh when people type something serious/angry and use bad grammar. It just makes it seem unimportant. #grammarsnob #sorry
  3. “[Handle redacted] oh my goodness Alexis, if you’re going to rant use the right they’re*”
  4. “I’m not the grammar police but there has been an increase in the misuse of the apostrophe and it’s really REALLY getting on my nerves!”

Stop it! Haven’t you seen Mean Girls? Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter, and criticizing Alexis says a lot more about you than it does about Alexis.

And be careful with apostrophes; they’re a gateway punctuation.

Exhibit D: You’re stifling creativity

Many upstanding members of the Grammar Police noted that while I’d made some interesting points, it was still important that kids learn grammar. This is true. Kids should learn grammar at school, and it should be a more formal version so that they’re prepared for life and whatnot. As Stephen Fry puts it, you have to be able to put on the right linguistic suit for the occasion.

I was sad, though, that so few among your ranks seemed to think it important that kids have fun with language. So many students struggle with English class because they come to dread the language they once loved in the days of Dr. Seuss. Like the author in exhibit A, students need some sound grammatical advice from an editor or in their case a teacher. What they need you to do is engage with their ideas. No matter how important you think your grammatical bylaws are, it’s just not your jurisdiction, Grammar Police. We don’t live in a grammar police state. Vigilantism clobbers the creative and communicative intention of language because it derails the conversation. And who are you to pass judgement on other people at all? Language belongs to all of us.

I know you don’t want people to hate language, Grammar Police. You love language — or at least you used to before you got so myopic about grammar— and I know you want other people to join in your love. But your current tactics just aren’t working.

Of course I respect how brilliantly you parse your sentences and the dedication you bring to your cause. But like every police force, real or grammatical, you’re under the scrutiny of those you police and your actions are up for questioning as much as the next person’s. You’re also just as fallible as the rest of us (see Muphry’s Law).

And so, dear Grammar Police, I call police brutality on your shenanigans.

You may be technically correct, but barring exceptional circumstances like teaching and hiring, what gives you the right to make other people uncomfortable with their language?

Your love of grammar is unobjectionable, but judging and mocking other people is very objectionable indeed. I find it especially perplexing how unapologetic you are about doing it. Language and grammar seem to be one of the few areas we still celebrate intolerance. Grammar Police, you can be so self-righteous that you’ve managed to warp grammar into a moral thing. You’re right or you’re wrong, and if you’re wrong you’re not just stupid, but also bad and the Grammar Police has license to judge you accordingly.

No. This is denies the very essence of language, which is that it’s organic and continually evolving.

Grammar is important, but there’s so much more to love about language than just grammar.Try to remember that, dear Grammar Police. Remember how much fun you used to have with words. It can be that way again. Engage with the language, not the grammar.Write a poem. Make up a word. Verb a noun if you’re feeling frisky. It’s been done before and you know what? Language is better for it!

Best Wishes,

A Defector