A repentant sinner
When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I bore a family nickname. My mother and grandmother called me “Mr. Precise.” I was, even then, a stickler for correct grammar, as I understood it to be correct, and was generous in offering correction to others.
By high school and college, from humble beginnings as a teacher’s pet, I had swollen into a first-class language snob, with boundless scorn for all who failed to meet my exacting standards. As Steven Pinker remarks in The Language Instinct, “Humans are ingenious at sniffing out minor differences to figure out whom they should despise.”
And after that came graduate school in English, and it should be unnecessary to describe what a figure I cut there. If you think me an obnoxious twit today, be grateful that you didn’t encounter me when I was 24.
But the weight of years, parenthood and newspaper journalism have broken my spirit. Oh, I can still deride the bureaucratic obfuscation and self-congratulation that marks communication in business and government, and I have to leave the room when the local TV news comes on to avoid the threat of apoplexy, but I am way more relaxed about the way people talk or write in casual communication. I understand that some of the rules I was taught are not rules at all, and some of them are not even reliable guidelines. I’ve given way on host as a verb and any number of other shibboleths. I try to focus in my own writing and my editing on clarity and precision. Sloppiness in writing irritates, but not as a moral failing.
This is why I remain a little apprehensive about the impending National Grammar Day. I foresee the emergence from their burrows of the people Professor Pinker calls “the language mavens,” the strident, self-appointed guardians of language and judges of everyone else’s speech and prose. This priggishness will do no good.
We’re well into Lent, the season of self-examination and rueful recognition. I’d suggest that the best thing to do on National Grammar Day is to reflect on our own use of the language, to try to use words more carefully ourselves and to cut everyone else a little slack.