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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."



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (7)


The phrase "time and place" applies here -- there is an appropriate time & place for correcting (or pointing out) bad grammar and spelling.

If someone does it all the time, no matter the situation, then others will indeed quickly tire of hearing what they believe to be "nit-picking."

Many of those who set themselves up as models of grammatical rectitude by criticizing others come up short. Frequently, when they invoke "grammar," they're talking about minor points of usage, such as the ban on splitting infinitives, which have no basis in the actual practice of the best writers of English prose.

Anyways, irregardless, git a load o' this:

I hope that the people who feel the need to provide unsolicited grammar advice would be grateful to get, say, unsolicited fashion advice, or unsolicited tonsorial advice, or unsolicited advice on the many _other_ ways that people judge one another. As you yourself said so memorably, John, "Language is an invaluable support in our efforts to identify people to look down on." But only one of many such efforts. Judge not, that you be not judged.

You wrote: "If bad grammar is a breach of etiquette, then what is publicly scolding people about faulty grammar? "

Ah, etiquette.

Actually, bad grammar is NOT a breach of etiquette.

But as Miss Manners makes clear in this column:
scolding people IS.

I tend to agree that there is a significant different between the "breach of etiquette" in such things as Twitter and Facebook and the misuses of grammar and punctuation in publications. When you only have 140 characters, you abbreviate. When you have 1200 words to get your point across, there's no excuse for poor use of language. I believe people need to understand, as david mentioned, that there is a time and place for such corrections of grammar and usage. The internet - in such colloquial and common places like instant messages and emails - is out of bounds.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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