A new way to be a complete loser

I have just read an article in the New York Times, “The Self-Appointed Twitter Scolds,” about a set of people who have taken it on themselves to correct sloppy grammar on Twitter whenever and wherever they find it. Some even have automated programs that will send criticisms to complete strangers.

This is, perhaps, not surprising, but it is nonetheless disappointing. To think that there are people whose lives are so pathetically devoid of any sense of control or significance that they feel the need to dispense wholesale rudeness personally to anyone who fails to match their idea of grammatical perfection! These people need to go out and buy some manners. Even the cheap kind of manners they can get at discount stores will prevent this. This sort of behaviour is like walking down the sidewalk looking for people who are, for instance, wearing stripes with plaid, or even blue with green, and saying rude things to them about it.

I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it: The rules of language are made to serve communication, not the other way around. The rules of grammar that we have are a codification of common practices that arose through actual usage, and the point of them is to give people a clear and consistent means of communicating with each other – so one human mind can reach out and come into contact with another human mind. Grammar is the means. The moment it is taken as the end, we have what is now commonly known as a FAIL. To use a Buddhist analogy, what these people are doing is like focusing on the finger rather than on the moon that it is pointing at.

Or let me use an analogy familiar to concert-goers. How often have you been at a concert, or the opera or ballet, and heard someone across the theatre going “SSSHHHHH!” at someone? Tell me, now, how often have you heard the person they were shushing? The SSSHHHHH is louder and more disruptive than what it aims to correct. It is a form of rudeness pretending to be a form of enforcement of politeness.

Likewise, while it may be bad manners to tweet in all caps, it is much worse manners to send a tweet to someone out of the blue carping on their use of all caps. And while making a lot of typos may be a little distracting and may seem to show imperfect concern for the reader, that’s hardly at the level of rudeness shown by those who tweet back complaining about them.

The truth is that no one is a perfect user of English all the time. It’s not really possible, since there are points of dispute such that some people will think one thing correct and others will think a different thing correct. But, more than that, English is not one language with the same rules and structures all the time. It has a variety of levels of usage appropriate to different contexts. (See “An appreciation of English: A language in motion” for some background.) It is as wrong to use formal locutions in a casual context as vice versa, for instance. And certain grammatical “errors” can be a good way to signal a casual, friendly context – don’t say it ain’t so.

More to the point, one thing I have never failed to observe is that anyone who is inclined to be hostile about other people’s grammar inevitably makes mistakes and has false beliefs about grammar. Often the very thing they’re ranting about they’re mistaken about (see “When an ‘error’ isn’t”). But beyond that, you can feel sure that they will get other things wrong even by the prescriptive standards they adhere to, be they idioms, points of grammatical agreement, or what have you. And you can feel entirely certain that they are utterly uneducated in linguistics, having false beliefs about, for instance, what is and isn’t a word.

Am I advocating an “anything goes” approach to grammar, whereby we toss out all the rules? Of course not. I’m a professional editor, after all. If you want to deliver a polished message, you want to make sure that it doesn’t have deviations that will distract or annoy people. There is a reason for having standards – we want to make sure we all have a point of reference so we can communicate with each other. But, again, the point of those standards is to serve communication, not the other way around. They are tools. They are not indicators of a person’s quality. An infraction of them causes no one injury.

And breaking grammatical rules is simply nowhere near as bad as being unspeakably rude to people about their use of grammar. Let it go, people. The English language is not being destroyed by people who make typos. The most damage that has been done to English has been done by people who appointed themselves its correctors.

4 responses to “A new way to be a complete loser

  1. To anticipate one possible criticism of this post: Yes, I do on my blog occasionally make recommendations about usage. But I do not upbraid people personally for infractions. The difference is like the difference between writing “Generally, striped ties will not look good with plaid suits” and going down the street looking for anyone wearing stripes with plaid and saying, “You idiot! Learn how to dress!”

  2. Some observations about recent tweets to “correct” usage:

    – One twit (or is it tweeter? tsk) declared “funnest is not a word.” This is obviously untrue. It was used as a bounded lexical unit, formed on the basis of accepted derivational principles, and you understood it as intended. Therefore, it is a word. Yes, it’s that simple. See my note on lung-bustingly.

    – Another declared that “nauseous” can only mean “causing nausea”. Also not well-founded. See my note on mucous, mucus, and nauseous.

    – One of them (perhaps more than one) takes tweets in nonstandard English and retweets them in rather dry, prissy English. This shows a failure to understand the various registers of English and their functions and effects. See What flavour of English do you want? for some background on register.

    Although these twits (again, “tweeters”, “oops”, “sorry”) seem to think that everyone wants to be corrected personally on errors, whether they have requested such or not, I will not bother correcting them in person. I don’t know them, and they didn’t ask me. And I suspect it may be a wasted effort.

    It’s true that there are many people out there who don’t handle the English language as well as they perhaps could. I have never, however, observed a correlation between quality of English usage and quality of personal character. And while I do wish language education were better in our schools, I’m coming to think that education in common decency and thoughtfulness may be more needed. Of course, the young will always be a bit impetuous and thoughtless… we may hope that these self-appointed grammar police will continue to mature.

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