Good Grammar v. Proper Usage--And a Word About Grammar Bullies

 

 

Good grammar is one of the most important ways that you love your readers. 

Grammar instruction usually focuses on proper usage. This approach is writer-centric, not reader-centric. You learn correct usage so that your reader will know that you are intelligent, educated, and part of the club. You know the difference between its and it’s. You know the difference between their and there and they’re.

I’m not opposed to correct usage, of course. I strive for it myself. But I strive for correct usage because I love myself, not because I love my reader. I want people to think I’m intelligent, educated, and part of the club.

So what might a reader-centric view of grammar look like? For one thing, it focuses on the truth that good grammar guides a reader from idea to idea to idea; grammar is a way of managing a reader’s expectations for receiving new information. 

Good grammar, then, isn’t a way of demonstrating a writer’s expertise, but a way of reaching out to the reader. It says, “Look here, dear reader, I want to show you something.” Grammar is the rules of the road for verbal clarity. And clarity is one of the most important ways you demonstrate a love for your material and a love for your reader. 

English grammar is complex. That means there are lots of pitfalls—lots of ways to get things wrong. But because English is complex, it’s also flexible. This beautiful language gives you lots of ways to express the same idea, with many shades of meaning, with many different emphases. My hope is that by the end of Grammar for Writers, students will feel less fear about getting grammar wrong, and more freedom in the flexibility that English affords.

Grammar stresses people out, in large part because people seem to take so much pleasure in pointing out what’s wrong with other people’s grammar. Look at social media: people devote hours to making and spreading memes about how stupid and wrong other people are when they make grammar mistakes.

If you’re good at grammar, good for you. But nobody likes a grammar bully. I’m astonished at how many people seem to consider their grammar bullydom to be a point of honor.

So before you go beating up on people for their grammar errors, I want you to keep this in mind: most grammar errors are the result of a person's being too logical. Grammar errors tend to be the result of applying logic instead of applying the exception to the logic in one particular case.  

Why does a toddler say mouses instead of mice? Because he fully understands and applies the logic by which we normally form the plural in English. He just hasn’t yet learned that in the case of mouse and mice, you have to throw out logic and do something else.

Why do people make the mistake of spelling the possessive its as it’s? Because for every other word in the English language, you use an apostrophe+s to form the possessive. This is a perfectly logical mistake. 

So if you are one of those people who takes pleasure in berating people when they misspell its, I want you to be sure you understand that you are berating them for being too logical. 

True, spelling its as it’s is a usage error. And yes, the person who makes that error isn’t in the grammar club with you and me. If you want to make fun of them for not being in the club, go ahead, I guess. But not being in the club isn’t the same thing as being stupid.