Columns > Published on November 5th, 2021

Why We Take Grammar So Personally

In case you don’t believe the headline, here are a few select comments from a LitReactor grammar article:

Please, find a new topic in which to meet your deadline and/or quota. You have begun to bore those of us with both sense and sensibility. You and I both know you are a poseur, unfit to preach to others. Mend your ways.

If you're going to get on a prescriptivist high horse and write an article about grammar mistakes, at least try looking up each claim before you make it.

Suggestion: look up "word" in the dictionary - and take a linguistics course!

What about impacted bowels?

I swear that last one is real and surprisingly relevant.

After I listened to the return episode of Unprintable: The LitReactor Podcast, and after I basked in the glow of being called “LitReactor’s greatest asset and top hunk” (or something like that, who can keep track of all the compliments tossed around) I listened to the hosts count down the Top 10 All-Time Most-Popular LitReactor Columns. A bunch of them were about grammar, and one, the top article, had hundreds of comments and resulted in the writer getting a flood of emails, many of which were...passionate and not cool.

Where’s all this passion coming from? I feel like everyone I knew slept through English class, and now they’re all lambasting people for prepositions at the end of sentences. Why do we take grammar so personally?

One last quote:

MAJOR nit here: most of your issues are semantic, not grammatical.

Okay, yes, we’re using “grammar” in a broad sense. Some of this is usage, semantics, whatever. I’m throwing it all in a pot together. If that bothers you, comment below with a rating of my stupidity. I just ask that you please use my patented 37-star scale. 1 star being Pretty Stupid, 15 stars being Even Stupider Than You Thought, 37 stars being so stupid that you change the rating back to 15 because if I’m that stupid, there’s no way I haven’t fallen into an open manhole or something and died by now, and who wants to speak of the dead that way?

Our Parents

When you slap down someone's grammar, they slap back for their mama.

Your first experiences speaking and being understood were intimate. The words, the way you said the words, the order you put the words in, all of that came from the people closest to you. It came from the stories they told you before bed time, the little phrases they used around the house, all this personal stuff. It’s literally burned into the sign your grandfather lovingly created in his woodshop and hung above his garage that said, “The Johnsons’,” complete with misplaced apostrophe.

When you go after someone’s grammar, it’s a little like a “Yo mama” slam. I don’t know that “Yo mama’s so stupid she doesn’t understand subject/verb agreement,” cuts all that deep, but it’s still kind of a nasty place to go.

When you slap down someone's grammar, they slap back for their mama. 

We're All Gonna Die!

When you’re young and you see Webster’s adopt a word or phrase you’ve used, maybe one that got you a red mark on an English paper, you feel validated. You feel like the culture is listening.

When you’re old and you see Webster’s adopt a new word that you think is stupid, you feel out of touch, and it’s a reminder that you’re no longer relevant. 

Fighting for traditional grammar rules is about fighting to see your ideas and values as valid, and if we can get a little cosmic, it’s about fighting to be acknowledged as being a tiny, relevant blip in human existence. Even though we’ll all be dead, there’s a weird comfort in thinking that 100 years from now people will still speak in a way that you’d recognize. Changes in grammar take that comfort away. Changes in grammar remind us that we're all going to die, we're all going to die soon, and we'll all be forgotten almost immediately after we're dead. 

I'm So Smart

People who are smart and don’t have two squirts of creativity among all their body fluids love to find objective ways to critique art. Objective methods are the most useless, boring ways to critique art, but these sorts of critiques appeal to other dorks who don’t know how to make anything of their own. Objective critiques are easy to understand. They make it easy to put a piece of art into a “good” or “bad” bucket.

Talking about the “bad grammar” in a story or a book is a way to try and morph an issue of subjective taste into an objective issue of knowledge. “I didn’t like this book because it is functionally incorrect.” Which is a way of saying, “I cannot enjoy this because I’m too smart.”

Nobody likes a high horse-er, and when you mount that grammar steed, everyone wants to knock you out of the saddle. 

Grammar is Culture

Here’s the basic thing underlying most grammar discussions: “High” culture uses proper grammar, “low” culture uses variations.

Rich people speak properly, poor people don’t.

Northerners use proper grammar, Southerners don’t.

Educated people know how to write with proper punctuation, stupid people don't.

People who read LitReactor grammar columns use proper grammar, people who exclusively read my columns don’t.

When someone feels their grammar is threatened, whether it’s by someone explaining a rule or someone making a new one, they feel like a piece of their culture is being judged as low or bad or inadequate.

Nobody Cares What You Think

Grammar isn't about you. Sorry. Nobody's even trying to find out what you think about it. 

And frankly, this is a good thing. 

If we came up with some realistic way to poll everyone—maybe everyone gets a ballot—it’d be a nightmare. It'd be like voting on that weird, obscure town charter shit that nobody understands. If everyone got a vote, it’d be two months before a hacker rigged the vote so the period was replaced with a tiny image of a cat’s butthole.

When grammar changes are made, it’s a pretty clear statement that you have no power and that your opinions and ideas do not matter. It’s not about you. It was never about you. It never will be about you. This is true of most things, but that doesn't mean anyone wants to be reminded. 

How Can You Take It Less Personally?

Learn the basics. If you understand the machine, you know that when it breaks down, it’s nothing personal. Besides, learning the right way means you’ll have access to people and things that you might miss out on if you refuse to learn.

Break the rules for a reason. If you break a rule for no reason, you’re a jerk. If you break a rule to achieve a goal, and if that outcome is more important than the original rule, you’re a genius.

Accept that nobody cares if you’re smart. You’re smart, that’s fine. I’m hot, you don’t see me adding beefcake photos to all my columns. Nobody cares that I'm a shredded specimen, and nobody cares that your brain is buff as hell.  

Put it in context. Grammatical errors are less dangerous than neglecting to use a turn signal. Correcting someone’s grammar is less helpful than donating a dollar to a charity. It’s not that important.

Remember that it's not about you. When someone says the grammar in your latest column sucks, it's not really about you, it's about them. When someone uses lousy grammar in a column, it's not about you, it's about them. Don't make things that aren't about you into things about you. Nobody needs that. 

Get On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Writing Tools (10th Anniversary Edition): 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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