The case for bad grammar

First of all, a disclaimer: I understand the basis rules of the English language. I have strong opinions on the Oxford comma. My reading habits are wide and varied. I appreciate a well-turned sentence and a well-reasoned argument, blah blah blah.

In certain ways, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the hand-wringing “oh, but think of the language!” rhetoric churned out by think pieces whenever the lines between internet speak and—what to even call it? Page speak? IRL speak? Oh, here it goes—get conflated. I get it: jargon is terrible and semicolons are sacred. Language is an awesome thing, and I mean that in all senses of the word. I might even argue that language—written, spoken, signed, whatever—is the pinnacle of human achievement.

But there are also, perhaps increasingly, times when I am overwhelmed by the rules that dictate what I need to say, because they get in the way of the saying. I need to turn off the switch in my brain that slots in commas and apostrophes the way idle commuters position Tetris pieces. There are times when all I want is to say what I mean without worrying about how it’s said, or rather, without worrying about what it looks like when I say it.

Hence, bad grammar.

An example: since I was a wee lass, maybe 10 years old or so, I’ve kept a journal. I start every entry with the day, date, time (not necessarily in that order), and, on the next line, note what I’m listening to at the moment (“birds chirping”, “cafe sounds”, “broken social scene”). I went through a phase where I’d get stoned and draw colorful swirly designs, then write around them later. I went through a DFW-inspired phase of heavy non-sequiturs and liberal use of arrows. The last page of every post-college journal is a list of people I’ve slept with. It is, as journals usually are, an intensely personal and private object: a window into my mental and emotional well-being at any given moment, whether I’m 13 and failing math or 23 and just got dumped.

It’s also a place (and space) where I can do whatever the fuck I want with language. I tend to eschew apostrophes altogether. Commas and periods are interchangeable. Words are rarely capitalized in any obvious way, and I never, ever capitalize the “I” (why bother? it’s pretty clear who the speaker is in a journal). My reasoning: well, I’m the only one reading it, and I know what I mean. And if, upon re-reading old entries, I don’t know what I mean, who cares? The point is that, at the time of writing, I knew.

It’s a bit of a comfort thing, knowing that the only person judging my journal is me, and the last thing I care about in that particular context is grammar. It’s also a relief to know that here, at least, is a space where I can give my brain a break. I have a friend who takes it upon herself to correct my typos while we’re gchatting. She seems unable to resist picking out and correcting every misspelled word and misplaced comma, as if each mistake were proof of intelligence on her part, rather than an example of sloppy typing and poor hand-eye coordination on my part.

I wish that my friend and I could inhabit a space similar to what I have with my journal, or, hell, my therapist—a willingness to overlook sloppy delivery in favor of actual meaning. A willingness to let petty shit slide because of, I don’t know, any number of reasons: I have a funny story to share and am too excited to proofread, or I’m ranting furiously and blind rage is causing me to flub up my sentences. Or maybe I just want to communicate in a way that doesn't include grammar, because I’m confident that you’ll understand me anyway. Go ahead and call me a lazy and illiterate philistine, but grammar fatigue is real! And maybe now I’m the one being petty, but I can’t help but keep my grammar nazi friends at a distance. It’s hard for me to confide in someone and open myself up to criticism and vulnerability when the first response is “you missed an apostrophe.”

I’m not trying to argue that poor grammar is a virtue, or—slippery slope alert!—that messiness automatically equals authenticity. Proofread your work emails, people. But when I’m not at work, I sometimes resent having to constantly proofread myself, and you better believe I resent the shade that gets thrown my way when I don’t. The beauty of language is that it’s slippery and nuanced and ever-evolving, built with endless levels of meaning and degrees of formality, all of which are in themselves slippery and nuanced and ever-evolving. There are many ways to say what you mean and some of them are grammatically right and many others are grammatically wrong, but even the ‘wrong’ ways carry their own meaning.

It may well be that my journal entries from this time last year are an illegible scrawl, but that’s because they communicate a level of emotion that’s more important than the words on the page. I really believe there are times when the very act of communicating transcends the means of transmission. So basically, I think it’s okay to indulge in some bad grammar. I think it’s a shitty thing to judge someone for, and a petty thing to correct someone on, and I think we should cut each other some slack. Thoughtful, meaningful communication is hard enough without worrying about whether we’re doing it right.

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