Monday, February 20, 2017


       Among English-speakers, there are those who have taken on the responsibility of watch-dogging others. When they catch someone breaking one of the rules, they pull them over for a verbal citation. They are sometimes called the Grammar Police.

I wonder if other languages have people who provide the same service. Are there people who hold other people accountable for some infraction in Hindi or Japanese or Spanish? I bet so. That’s probably why you can say “shut up” in every language.
The term “Grammar Police” works, but I prefer to think of them as Grammar Spocks. They stand on the bridge of the Enterprise and snidely interject, “Actually, Captain, you meant ‘farther’ instead of ‘further.’” Granted, Spock often saved the day because he was half-inhumanly OCD, but there were also plenty of times when he was less heroic and primarily just annoying. When you’re trying to navigate the universe, you don’t always need someone tapping you on the shoulder to pick nits.
Mary Norris was a proofreader for The New Yorker. Even she sounds a little annoyed with Grammar Spocks. “The English language is full of words that are just waiting to be misspelled, and the world is full of sticklers, ready to pounce.” Sticklers of the world, no one is asking you to turn in your badge. But considering the lawlessness of our language, maybe you could lighten up.
Anointing yourself as the official in-house grammarian doesn’t always lead to harmony. In most cases, you will only inspire your target to focus on how they enunciate phrases such as “I don’t care” or “Get out of my face.”
Something else hard-core sticklers should consider. Since our language has so many inconsistencies and loopholes, it’s just a matter of time before you yourself end up being quite wrong. Eventually even the most finely-honed literary elitist becomes the victim of some obscure facet of the English language.
Probably one of the best examples is the use of prepositions. Many a Grammar Spock has leaped at the chance to correct someone for the blasphemy of ending a sentence with a preposition. A little more thorough investigation reveals it is not a crime at all.
A poet in the 17th Century named John Dryden was one of the first to try and make it illegal. It was based on an obsolete loyalty to Latin grammar. Since then, it has become a misunderstanding passed on through generations. The whole issue is best summed up by Churchill’s facetious comment. “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
This is not to bash mnemonic devices or to say grammar doesn’t matter. But I have not come to praise the grammar police. I have come to bury them.

[This is an excerpt from my book Paper Bullets--Point Blank Notions on Writing. It is currently available on Amazon.]

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