Friday, January 15, 2010

Fighting the Grammar Police.

Grammar police are everywhere, pointing out mistakes and tsk-tsking about sloppy writing. Sometimes they don't know what they are talking about when it comes to the "rules" for writing correct English.

In his wonderful book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph  M. Williams points out the different types of rules that the grammar police are so happy to enforce.

Not all rules are created equal, as Williams discusses in the first section on correctness.

Some rules can't be broken without "breaking" the language. English is English because of certain rules that govern its structure. Williams gives the example of articles (a, an, the). We say "the tree." We don't say "tree the" and expect readers and listeners to take us seriously. "Tree the" is wrong, plain and simple, and no style sheet or differing opinion will change that.

The second type of rule distinguishes Standard English from non-standard English. Most educated writers can follow these rules without thinking about them. They write, "We have no bananas" rather than "We ain't got no bananas."

With the third group of rules, we can challenge the grammar police. The rules in this group were made up by grammarians based on the way they thought we should write. This is the secret ammunition because most grammar police believe that these rules carry the same authority as the other two types.

One such rule tells us not to split infinitives: We should write "to run quickly," rather than "to quickly run." But (another of these rules says not to begin a sentence with "But"), for anyone who was a fan of Star Trek: TNG, the line "to boldly go" simply will not work the other way: "to go boldly"!

In the category of invented rules, Williams identifies two sub-types - folklore and options. Folklore is simply that and carries no authority. Beginning a sentence with "and" or "but" falls ino this sub-type.

Options make writing sound very formal, almost as if the writer is trying too hard to be correct. One well-known rule of this type is the one that exhorts us not to end a sentence with a preposition. Winston Churchill offered the best example of how following this rule makes writing sound stilted: His famous saying- "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put"- makes the case.

Sometimes we have no choice - teachers, bosses and editors insist on strict adherence to all the types of rules. As a teacher of writing, I insist that students write correct, formal Standard English, as is fitting for academic work, and that they know about all the rules.

But the next time the grammar police criticize your writing, tell them about the rules and tell them they may just not be right. Many of the rules are not written in stone.


Ciss B said...

Sometimes I hate the people who think they're the grammar police, especially toward some of the newest writers in the elementary grades and middles school.

There got to be a time to learn the rules of the written language beginning when the words begin to form on their pages, but the focus needs to be also on keeping them loving writing and expressing themselves.

I know there is no formula, nor is there a single answer for exciting young writers and keeping them interested but we need to get past the all inclusive focus on only the grammar.

ChrisJ said...

So much of teaching, I think, is in how we do it. You're right; there are too many military types who want to promote rigid correctness above a real love and understanding of language.

angelshair said...

I really need this book :)!!!

ChrisJ said...


I love this book and use it quite often. It does have something for everybody.

Al said...

Sounds like a fantastic book, thanks for the review.
Fortunately I'm an Aussie, and we are just to irreverent to take grammar police at all seriously.

ChrisJ said...


Send some more Aussies's to Canada; we love your irreverence!

nothingprofound said...

As Thoreau said: "Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it." Rule making, I think, is a kind of power play. One makes them so one can dictate and be in control

ChrisJ said...


Agreed. I always struggle with this in the classroom!

Shriram INC. said...

thank you for introducing the book to me and vice versa, from today i can wield it as a ammunition when a grammarian tells me i am wrong!!!

ChrisJ said...

Shriram INC.,

Good idea. You can teach a grammarian a trick or two!