Mind your own business
Jill Rosen writes in this morning’s Sun about the grammar vigilantes who make it their business to correct other people’s lapses in grammar, spelling and usage, particularly in such venues as “cell phone text messages, instant computer messages, Facebook greetings and Twitter.” They include the many thousand members of a Facebook group, I judge you when you use poor grammar.
People do. There is much more to sentences than whatever raw meaning they convey. Speech and writing partake of many social elements, which is why the word solecism, for a breach in etiquette, derives from a Greek word for an error in grammar. That is why we use the word barbarian, which the Greeks coined to describe someone uncivilized — that is, unable to speak Greek. That is why George Bernard Shaw could write in the preface to Pygmalion, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
Some people Ms. Rosen quotes complain that this nagging about grammar has intimidated them, has inhibited their readiness to write. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You may recall Flannery O’Connor’s remark, “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” The Internet contains a tsunami of half-baked ideas, ineptly expressed.
But just as I found myself unable to endorse the enterprise of the gentlemen who traveled across the country to correct errors in signage (“Grammar vigilantes’ comeuppance”), and just as I previously expressed misgivings about going on a binge of public correction (“Show me your badge”), I’m separating myself from the “I judge you” crowd.
If bad grammar is a breach of etiquette, then what is publicly scolding people about faulty grammar? It’s bumptious. It is like going around and correcting other people’s pronunciations — not an activity that will leave you beloved.
Fortunately, Ms. Rosen quotes some sane and sensible advice from a lexicographer, Grant Barrett: “The self-appointed mavens, these people should be ignored as a group," he says. "Unless you are hired or asked to watch the language of other people, mind your own business."