Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Grammar Police

I used to be a member of the squad. I got passionate about apostrophes and gave detailed lectures to my students on dangling participles and semicolons and I really believed them. I once spent a long time telling a class why the difference between "every day" and "everyday" was deeply important. They looked at me like I was nuts (pardon: as if I were nuts). I might even have said something along the lines of, If the only thing you learn this semester is why "every day" is not the same as "everyday," I'll die happy. Maybe I was nuts.

Somewhere along the line I turned in my badge. What happened? I don't really know. I think it started with the phrase: I could care less. Technically, of course, it should be I couldn't care less, but a few years ago I realized I like I could care less better. It's more carefree, somehow; it sounds like someone tossing her beret aside. I couldn't care less sounds full of denial, full of thou dost protest too much.

And I began to enjoy seeing misplaced apostrophe's on menus' and poster's.

I guess I stopped believing in correctness. I still think good, clean writing is better than sloppy writing, but only because it's good and clean, not because it's correct. If I use my smaller fork to eat my salad these days, it's because I truly want the bigger one to tackle my entree, not because someone decided it was the correct one.

Now that I think about it, you know who I blame? George Bush. No, really! Six and a half years ago, I abandoned my last shreds of respect for unearned authority. And though it's true that Bush personally uses execrable, positively criminal grammar, and one might feel it a form of protest to use only the most correct English as a response, that would be buying into his game. Because he's deliberately trying to piss us -- those of us who care about things like language and literature and beauty and truth -- off.

It's just too easy to be correct, to take refuge in correctness. Correctness has come to feel like complacency, these last few years. It feels like fussing over where the dessert spoon belongs when people are being murdered under the table.

12 comments:

wing said...

I took a linguistics class one semester, and perhaps the most important thing I learned is that there is no such thing as incorrect grammar for a native speaker. Natives invent grammar, and constantly reinvent it. I know that all of this is obvious, but I guess I didn't realize until before how arbitrary all of the rules we once learned really are. I used to scoff at speakers of dialects whose English sounded "bad." Now I realize how rich, interesting, and creative such language can be (of course, by this point, I am mostly talking about oral and not written language).

My mother was an English teacher, and when we were young, she would ground us and yell at us for using bad grammar. It reminds me your obsession with everyday vs. every day.

Chris "priestx" Wallace said...

the word There is obnoxious.

rmellis said...

My mother was like that too. I think sometimes kids can hear the message as "Don't talk like *those people*!" and inherit/develop class paranoia or just plain snobbery.

I don't correct our kids much -- maybe not enough. I thought since they don't watch teevee they'd get their language from us, which ought to be good enough. But recently I heard O's music teacher correct his use of "good" when he should have said "well" and felt like quite the remiss mother. I never do that...

Matthew Tiffany said...

My kid, she's three years old - four this month - and somehow, she's got better grammar than her dear old grammar-police daddy. "I feel badly about that," she says. I don't know why. It makes me want to stop talking, lest I poison her with my shopworn Maine-isms.

rmellis said...

You could speak to your daughter only in Latin. I once knew a guy who did that. I wonder how those kids turned out...

jrlennon said...

Oh, I'm sure they turned out fabulous!!!

Hey priestx, what's your beef with "There"?!!?

zoe said...

Is it the their, there, they're thing?

The kids I teach have appalling grammar and could not care less. I think it's down to texting and a lack of reading. I'm not too grammar fascist myself (I couldn't be really, I still have difficulty with its and it's) but it does upset me when companies wilfully mispell things. We take our kids to an indoor play place called Junglee Kids and they spell everything that should end with a "y" with a "ee", such as "partees". Even though my children are too young to read yet I've found myself trying to engage them in conversation about the idiocy of this.
Pathetic, I know.

5 Red Pandas said...

Zoe, I'm somewhat comforted that your students in Scotland are no better grammarians than mine in New York.

I found that teaching seriously atrophied my ability to spell properly. Once you read mispellings on a daily basis you begin to forget which are the correct spellings.

I correct my mother's grammar, but only because she wants it to be corrected as she is still developing as an English speaker. It wasn't until I started studying Chinese that I understood why she made particular grammatical errors. She was speaking English using Chinese grammar. I've noticed some of my Spanish speaking students doing something similar.

rmellis said...

I never really understood English grammar until I studied foreign languages. A matter of stepping out of it in order to see it clearly, I think.

Either that or my post-60's public school education didn't bother with it...

wing said...

Don't forget the awesome complication between your and you're. I have this business card from a toetrucker when I wrecked my car, and his slogan reads:

"D's Towing. When Your Down, Don't Frown D's Around"

Syntax and all. I couldn't help but to laugh, because it is sort of poetic, for a slogan anyway.

zoe said...

So true. I used to be an excellent speller. Now every day words are often confusing. I have great difficulty with address and going. Thankfully, most of the kids I teach are worse than me. I keep expecting a grown up to drum me out of teaching...

—T. said...

Zoe and Wing named the two leading misspellings I encounter, there, their, they're and your and you're but I'm going to take it one step further. Exasperate and exacerbate and elude and allude. I want to hunt people who use words incorrectly.