Do you bleed red ink?

Illustrations by Max Mose

If you’re reading this, someone once taught you an invaluable thing: how to read. Shortly thereafter, you were likely taught how to write, and then write properly—how to use correct tenses, where to place prepositions, etc. 

Some learned to be very good at following these directions. They went on to bleed red ink all over their peers’ papers. They approached storeowners and informed them that their signs should read “5 items or fewer.”

I used to be one of those people. I thought that my propensity for proper usage made me inherently intelligent and literary. It’s easy to make the same association I did—grammarphiles find themselves in fanatical company. There exists a Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature (SPELL) whose sole purpose is to point out grammatical errors. Many books have been published under the premise that if you misuse grammar, there could be deadly consequences.1

All right, so there are rules, and these people are only trying to enforce them. But to what end? It is one thing to pride yourself on your perfect prose, but why does everyone else need to strive for grammatical perfection? It’s at best disingenuous and annoying, and at worst self-serving and elitist.

Constantly correcting the improper grammar of others isn’t just exasperatingly dull.

  • It fosters a state of language where people are afraid to make mistakes and are consequently afraid to express themselves.
  • It puts the focus on the medium of communication, rather that what is being communicated.
  • It shifts the purpose of language from being a means of communication and vast expression to being foremost an indicator of education and/or class.      

Nine times out of ten, when someone corrects another’s improper grammar, it isn’t because there is a misunderstanding about what is being said. The latent motive is to say “I’m smarter than you” or “I’m more educated than you” or “I’m of a higher social strata.” It’s hardly about “saving the language.” As long as editors exist, someone will be propagating old usage. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be inventing new usage; turning nouns into verbs; misusing idiomatic expressions, and creating the sometimes rich, sometimes simplified, always democratized parlance of tomorrow. 

Lingual heresy? Far from it. It is a drastic misunderstanding of language to safeguard its rules. Language thrives on new interpretations and misunderstandings. Ask the poor saps at the Oxford English Dictionary trying to keep up with it. If you don’t like an addition to your language, don’t use it. No one will force you to, and likewise, you shouldn’t force your ideal language on others.

I’m not saying to hell with grammar. I only mean to disavow the grammar-first culture that believes others’ trifling errors warrant confrontation. Yes, if you take a snapshot of a language, it is a static thing with set rules. And when precise communication is called for, grammar and proper usage will always have their place. But if someone asks me how I’m doing, our conversation has no need of exactitude. “Good” is just as acceptable as “well.”

1 Eats, Shoots & Leaves, anyone? From the description: “Eats, Shoots and Leaves adopts a more militant approach and attempts to recruit an army of punctuation vigilantes: send letters back with the punctuation corrected. Do not accept sloppy emails. Climb ladders at dead of night with a pot of paint to remove the redundant apostrophe in ‘Video’s sold here’.” Gag me.