Grammatical Fisticuffs by Stephanie Nickel

I read a meme on Facebook recently that was originally posted by Grammarly. (I love their memes.) I found it to be a humorous exchange between a student and his teacher about the difference between “may” and “can.” Yes, I admit there are things that make me twitch, but this isn’t one of them – and the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           things that do aren’t actually important to “the big picture.”

The thing that really got me thinking was one of the comments left by another reader. She seemed quite offended that someone who was concerned with proper word usage would be called names (pedantic and pretentious in this case). I also know of a writer and editor who feels each time we don’t follow “the rules” we diminish the language. It’s okay. They’re allowed to feel this way.

There may be some of you who already feel your blood pressure rising. Funny how a discussion about linguistics and grammar can do that to people. 

I heard Ammon Shea, author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, on a radio talk show. I learned a thing or two and very much want to read his book.

One of the things that aggravates Shea is that often those who get up in arms when the rules are broken haven’t done their research. These “purists” would have been considered the uneducated ones in the not too distant past. You see, these rules change over time. What was once considered proper is no longer. Shea believes that a language that does not evolve is a dead language.

I use reference books such as The Chicago Manual of Style, but 5, 10, 50 years from now, the edition that sits on my shelf will be outdated. Even now, despite what some academics say, editing is often a subjective endeavour. Just compare one publishing house’s style sheet with another’s.

What is language really and why is it important to learn – and use – the currently accepted rules?

A Means to Communicate with One Another

According to Wikipedia, researchers conclude that less than 35 percent of face-to-face communication is verbal. If we break a rule from time to time, it won’t likely have a dramatic effect.

And when it comes to written communication, for the most part, we have to use language that can be understood by our target audience. Writings for the general population are now at a lower reading level than in days gone by. Of course, neither of these things means we shouldn’t use accepted spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

A Means to Express Your Thoughts and Feelings

Our intention may come across loud and clear if we are communicating face-to-face. However, if our written work is bogged down by errors, our thoughts and feelings may get lost in the muddle.

A Means to Effect Change

If we want to effect change on a broad scale, we don’t want our audience distracted by our apparent ignorance about the language. Whether we consider this distraction their problem or ours is irrelevant. If we want to be heard and know our audience may very well be alienated by such things, we should purchase, read, and apply a book (or two) on the subject. If you do a search for “grammar” on Amazon, you will find 100 pages of books. (This is also a good place to mention that a skilled editor is worth the investment – even for editors.)

A Means to Entertain

Deliberately breaking the rules can have a humorous effect. First, however, you must know the rules. You must also know that your audience will understand why what you say (or write) is funny.

When your humor has nothing to do with linguistics and grammar, it’s a good idea that errors in this area don’t distract from the message. On the flipside, strictly following the rules can be equally distracting—and unintentionally amusing. Consider Winston Churchill’s words: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

An Aside

If you haven’t read Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, you absolutely, positively must. It’s my favourite book on punctuation. I howled as I read it while my family was watching TV. They thought I was a little strange, but that’s okay because I am. Using incorrect punctuation can convey an unintended—often hysterical, sometimes tragic—message.

My Personal Philosophy

As an editor and writer, I want to do the best I can to create—and help others create—the most polished, effective written communication possible.

When it comes to reading work created by someone else, I want to be gracious, looking passed the mistakes to the message they are seeking to convey.

~*~

Stephanie Nickel

One comment

  1. As a proofreader, I do have to stick to rules when proofing for a client. However, there are times when a rule SHOULD be broken, sometimes for humor, sometimes for clarity, and for other reasons. Like you said, you should know the rules before you break them. Then break them carefully. LOL. We live in a time right now where editors are saying “get rid of all your adverbs!”. I love adverbs. But I do try to limit them so I won’t get called out on it. Honestly, though, most readers don’t care if the story is good. Okay, so that last sentence? It sounds like I’m saying readers don’t care if the story is good, when what I meant was they don’t care if you use adverbs if the story is good. So I might put a comma before “if” to clarify. I honestly didn’t set that up on purpose. It just happened. Hahahahaha. This is a great post, Stephanie.

    P.S. Even though I proofread for clients, I do let others proofread my books. It’s hard to find our own errors!

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