a big beautiful mess

Confessions of a Lapsed Grammar Cop

You know those people who, when faced with an offensive comment on the Internet, will point out its flaws in grammar and spelling rather than respond to the content? Yeah, I used to be one of those people. In my youth, I cherished my St. Martin’s Handbook as a Bible of all things grammar, and I took great pride in knowing all the comma rules by heart. I remember an assignment in sixth grade English in which we had to give a speech about our pet peeve. I chose improper grammar as my peeve. I took great delight in jumping on incorrect “your” usage anywhere I saw it, and I just devoured Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Fortunately, that phase ended for me at about the same time I signed up for facebook, back in 2007. I dodged a bullet. Maybe it was coincidence, but maybe it was just disinterest after finding out that the Internet was full of people who cared much more ferociously about grammar than I did, unlike my southwestern Pennsylvania high school. I was a grammar hipster.

Whatever the reason, it’s come as a somewhat nasty surprise this year to find that I can’t instinctively explain to my students here why a comma is needed somewhere. Too often my attempt at an explanation ends with, “It just feels right.” But it doesn’t feel right to use my Native Speaker Card to finish discussions like that. It feels like cheating. So, I’ve turned to the one grammar handbook I have here, the oft-touted Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. And oh my gosh, I wish I’d read it when I was younger! It has an elegance and a cheeky pretension that I would have loved back then. For example:

An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines. (Strunk & White 52)

But while I appreciate this book as a useful guide and a cultural artifact, I disagree violently with the sentiment that language is worth less when it doesn’t follow the rules. This attitude is a huge part of why reading comments on the Internet makes me want to vomit and/or become a hermit. The point of language is communication, and when you attack a person for every split infinitive, you’re not improving communication, you’re ending it. If I rejected anyone whose grammar wasn’t perfect here, I would have no one to talk to. I still value correctness, but I value interesting conversations more, and I think I’m a more interesting person when I’m contributing to those conversations instead of correcting them.

Just one more reason I don’t think EFL teaching is for me long-term.

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