On Grammer (And Yes, I Know I Spelled Grammar Wrong)

May 2


Joseph Devon

Joseph Devon

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There has been a growing trend, in academic circles and in my own life, to place grammar and its larger rules upon an impeachable pedestal. A growing number of people who seem to cling to the rules of grammar as if its only through the memorization of these rules and strict adherence to them that proper communication can be achieved. To these people I have but one word: Hogwash.


The application of grammatical rules is not the holy grail of the writing world. If anything the exact opposite is true and it is nothing but silly to pretend otherwise. There have been far too many different great works in far too many different phases of these rules to believe that the standards we have now are entirely correct and always will be.

Joyce never used quotation marks,On Grammer (And Yes, I Know I Spelled Grammar Wrong) Articles Melville loved run-on sentences, and Kerouac barely even seems to be speaking English at times. Should we assume that these authors and their works are no longer worth reading because they do not adhere to the strict grammatical rules in use today? Or, even worse, should we retroactively edit their words, changing their concept of what they wrote so that every quotation mark follows a comma and semicolons are used correctly? Of course not. These works should no more be touched than arms should be affixed to the Venice De Milo. They were created when different rules applied, and this should be respected. But this does not mean that those different rules are antiquated versions of the written word when compared to what we have now and that today’s standard is the correct one. Today’s standard is simply the phase we are slipping through at the moment, and it is bound to change as well.

The rules of grammar should be like the rules of law, stable but never standing still. To create a system of rules for writing and yoke the written word to these rules is going about things backwards. Writing comes first and then the rules, not the other way around. Those rules are in place to aid writing, not to stifle it, and they should bow out gracefully once the world has moved on without them. They work for us, as I’ve said, not the other way around.

This notion of the rules stepping aside for the writers is not a request, I should point out; it is an out and out threat. Experimentation with literature and the unavoidable influence of the spoken word on writing insures that the language will continue to shift and change, and if these rules and the people who cling to them will not yield, then they must be broken.

The stricter the set of rules is, the smaller your reachable audience becomes, either in time, or in space, or in both. Let’s say that a unique thought about life occurs to you in the abstract, and that you then put voice to this thought. And let us say that you construct the most perfect sentence in impeccable Queen’s English to express this thought. You have now encapsulated it for transmission to other people and you will be understood completely over three continents. The only problem is you have alienated the rest of the world. Nobody who speaks Chinese, or Greek, or Russian or Spanish will understand you. Likewise, a century from now your words will seem somewhat quaint. Two hundred years from now they’ll be downright archaic.

The use of language for self-expression is an act that began back during our days of living in caves. It was, and is, a much needed way of communicating thoughts and ideas to those around us by creating an agreed upon methodology for this communication. But, again, it is used to communicate with those around us, those with the same agreed upon terms, and those terms are radically different as the world, and the shared experiences of those in the world, begin to vary with space and time. It’s only natural. Language changes over space, and lingo changes over time. The more you specify your rules for communicating, the smaller your audience becomes and any attempt to actually lock those rules down into an unchanging law will only result in the suffocation of communication, not the perfection of it.

Or we can go back and look towards my previous comparison of the rules of grammar to the rules of law. They are not very different, after all. The law has a strict set of definitions and rules for words so that minimal subjective interpretation is allowed. People go to school for years to, in part, learn this strict language, and that is my point entirely. The stricter the rules, the more learning is required to apply them, and more expertise is then required to interpret them, and thus, the audience becomes smaller as less and less people have the acquired skill needed to communicate…and that is not self-expression. Self-expression needs to breath. And, in some strange way, self-expression needs the ability to be misunderstood.

We can also take this notion in the exact opposite direction. If more rules produce a smaller audience, then fewer rules must produce a larger audience. This, as it turns out, is exactly the case. As anyone who has ever found a bathroom in a foreign land by acting out the motion of pulling down their pants, as anyone who has been involved in a puppet show to figure out what is on a dinner menu, as anyone who has found a hotel room by tilting their head and pretending to sleep will tell you: there is an international language, but it’s not love or Esperanto, it’s mime. The more basic your method of communicating, the easier you will be understood.

I am not, of course, advocating some sort of grammatical free-for-all where we throw out all of the rules at once and ignore the fact that I used “its” instead of “it’s” back in the first paragraph. These rules provide a much needed service because, while it may be true that the more grunting you do the more you’ll be understood, it also happens to be true that the more basic your method of communicating the less complex your thoughts can be. There is no way I could mime the New York State Penal Code. All I’m saying is, we shouldn’t take it too far the other way. There is a reason the Tower of Babble fell over.
That being said, I suppose I should relent just a bit here about something I said earlier. Maybe I shouldn’t have threatened the rules of grammar exactly. As a writer I need and depend upon those rules to get from abstract thoughts in my head to paragraphs of 12-point font. So I take back that threat, but I leave a warning in its place: Don’t stand too firm, you believers in grammar, don’t hold too fast. This is all just a phase and the assaults on your rules taking place every day are just language attempting to move forward. The next time you want to complain about high-schoolers text messaging each other while spelling the word “cool” as “kewl”, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Is this pure stupidity and a sign of the crumbling of our civilization? Or is it something else?” (It’s something else. On a standard cell-phone keypad, the number 6 represents the letter “o”. To type “cool” with proper spelling during text-messaging on a cell phone requires you to hit the number 2 three times for the “c”, then to hit the 6 three times for the first “o”, then (and here’s the important part) to wait, and wait, and wait until that letter reads in before hitting the 6 three times again for the second “o”, then on to the 5 three times for the “l”. The word “kewl” requires no such waiting; none of the sequential letters are represented by the same number and all can be hit in succession with no pauses. Trust me. Try it.)

Language changes for a reason. Sometimes, as in the coining of a phrase like “hogwash,” a saying becomes so popular that it automatically enters the mainstream lexicon. Sometimes, as with the mutation of a word or phrase into different meanings, like “holy grail,” it’s because verbal exchanges have brought the word into use with a wholly different connotation. And sometimes, as with the word kewl, it’s just easier.

Rules of grammar are just fine, but please don’t try to make them into laws. They will not hold. You might as well go back in time and try to tell Rembrant that he can sculpt anything he wants, just so long as he always uses Lego Building Set #6948B and his airplane always turns out the same way. Or you might as well tell Van Gogh to go ahead and paint, just so long as he paints by number. (Ironically, that’s pretty much what happened to Van Gogh, an inspired painter who did not follow the strict rules of Dutch oil painting as they were at the time and thus only received scorn while he was alive. Of course, if that’s what the man saw when he looked at a haystack, I’m willing to admit that there might have been some other issues at play. Plus there’s the whole ear thing.) And you might as well tell me to stop interrupting my essay for parenthetical asides containing chatty writing. That’s how I’m most comfortable writing, and I’m not going to change it just to make you feel comfortable.

But I suppose I really do have to back off a bit and repeat: that’s a warning, not a threat. Grammar freaks, you had better learn how to bend because language is most certainly going to change throughout time, and if you will not yield for its passage it is going to leave you broken in its path.