Its Bad Grammar Who Cares vs. the Grammar Police


The Battle Lines on English GrammarHave Been Drawn

If you Google “bad grammar,” you’ll see that there are two camps on this topic: the frustrated readers and writers who can’t tolerate the bad grammar all around them, and those who claim that bad grammar is unimportant. Their argument can be summed up as follows: “It’s the thought that counts, and it isn’t reasonable to expect people to stop and put their words into proper English before speaking or writing.”

Online communication seems to have had both a positive and a negative influence on the use of proper grammar.  My guess is that the introduction of email caused most people to write a lot more than before email was introduced. That was a positive influence when the writer took time to think about the words before sending them to someone else.  In addition, blogging has millions of people writing every day, and I believe most bloggers take pride in their blogs and are careful about what they say and how they say it. Perhaps that’s why there has been more attention paid to grammar lately.  I’ve seen several articles about grammar in the media lately.

However, chatting online – which is by its very nature a fast, unedited outpouring of thoughts – began to change that, and after awhile some emails started sounding as informal as chat room conversations. With the onset of texting and its length limits, abbreviations have been formed for online chatting, and these have crept into emailing and other forms of written language.  [Yesterday I sent an email with a “Happy New Year” greeting at the end, and I received a reply that said, “u 2”.   That was the whole email. Not even an upper case u or a period at the end.]  It’s obvious to me that most people dash off emails quickly, thinking that they’re an informal form of communication, and they don’t stop to think about whether they’ve made spelling or grammar mistakes.

Despite the recent focus on grammar by some writers, there’s been an increase in grammatical errors in newspapers, magazines, on blogs, even on signs.

The classic grammatical error in advertising from my youth was, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” While English teachers and grammarians were quick to point out that “Like” should be “as,” the ad industry’s defense was that using “like” as a conjunction was popular usage.  That ad ran for many years, and probably influenced the use of “like” as a conjunction!  Finally, Winston developed an ad showing a little old lady saying, “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.” The ad copy read, “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?”

I read a best-seller over the holidays on my new Kindle from a nationally known publisher by a “promising new author” who wrote: “Me, my sister and Grandma decided not to go.”  In the book’s prologue, the author thanked all who supported her while she wrote it, including the foundation that had given her a grant.  Is the use of good grammar really so unimportant that a foundation is willing to dole out grant money to a writer who blatantly ignores the rules of grammar?  A writer who doesn’t know enough to say to herself, “I wouldn’t say ‘me decided,’ so I shouldn’t say ‘me, my sister and Grandma decided”?

Sometimes the rules of grammar are necessary so we can understand what a writer intends to say. Not following the rules can cause confusion. The placement of one comma can make the difference in what a sentence means: “Stay away from smoking, dope.”  “Stay away from smoking dope.”

Lucy Siegel

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15 Responses to “Its Bad Grammar Who Cares vs. the Grammar Police”

  1. Lori Pizzani Says:

    Thank you, Lucy!

    For all of us who took the time to learn proper grammar and continue to use it, despite the technology of the times, I say thank you. Just because there is a new technology through which to communicate doesn’t mean all past rules get deep-sixed. Individuals should know how to properly and effectively communicate in various media. And yes, Virginia, grammar counts!

    Lori Pizzani,
    Lori’s Stories
    Brewster, NY

    • Bridge Global Strategies Says:

      Lori,
      I’ve got to say that bad grammar is like the squeak of chalk on a blackboard to me. Certain errors get me more worked up than others. Singular nouns and plural verbs are one type (“Everyone in the group go to school.”) Confusion between subject pronouns and object pronouns is another (“Kathy and me are going to the store.”) But one that really drives me nuts is the use of the word “myself” instead of “I” or “me” (“Harry, Barbara and myself will handle that problem.” or “The English professor gave bad grades to my roommate and myself.”) Arrgghhh!

  2. akira odani Says:

    Lucy
    I found your piece on grammar interesting and entertaining. As a non-native speaker/writer of the language, I am usually careful about grammar and the proper use of words. If it is a public statement, I make sure that my spelling and grammar are correct before sending it out. I use dictionaries and personal editors to minimize the unavoidable mistakes because effective communication is important.

    I teach in a small college in upstate New York and face the problems of BAD writing every day, every semester, on every level. It is rare to find students who use spell and grammar checks that are easily available on their laptops. Most of the emails I receive from students are in the newest style of abbreviations and devoid of good grammar. I find them disturbing and difficult to decipher.

    I am not optimistic in the quality of future writing in English or in any other language. The digital technology seems to be inherently against proper literary expression and in favor of quick and simple graphics and symbols.

    Akira Odani
    Assistant Professor
    Business
    SUNY-Delhi

  3. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    Hi, Akira,
    I’m not as pessimistic as you are. I think the pendulum will eventually swing back in the other direction. Sooner or later (hopefully not too much later) the disintegration of comprehensible language will become such an obstacle to communicating that grammar will come back in style again, even among the younger generation. That said, I’m sure a lot of new expressions will become accepted usage of language (as in, “OMG!, my BFF sz shes H4U! ROFL! Oops gtg – ttfn!”). I’ll bet we’ll see some of these in the dictionary before you know it.
    Lucy

  4. kathryn Says:

    I need your help. A local newscaster has developed a nasty habit of saying “President Obama, HE” or “the Everett police, THEY”. Can you please give me the grammatical explanation of why that is incorrect so I can pass it on to her? I’d like to be able to stop screaming at the television each morning. Thanks.

    • Dan Says:

      I would just say that since the pronoun (he) is to refer back to/rename the antecedent (Obama), it isn’t necessary to follow the antecedent immediately with the pronoun. A textbook for a developmental English class that I teach puts it this way: “In a repetitious pronoun reference, the pronoun repeats a reference to a noun rather than replacing the noun. Remove the repetitious pronoun.”

  5. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    Kathryn,

    It is hard to tell what’s proper without knowing the context of the sentences in which you find these phrases.

    • kathryn Says:

      For example, “President Obama, HE plans a trip to Japan next week.” Or “The Everett police, THEY have arrested a man in connection with several residential burglaries”.

  6. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    I can imagine a newscaster saying something like that as a “headline” to grab attention for the story (s)he is about to report, or as a way of going into a commercial break (“The Everett police:… THEY have arrested a man in connection with several residential burglaries. The full story after this commercial break.”

    It’s not written English. I don’t think it’s terrible. The person is actually implying a few words: (“[NOW, HERE’S A STORY ABOUT The Everett police: THEY have arrested a man in connection with several residential burglaries.”)

  7. John Slattery Says:

    Shouldn’t your title have been written this way: It’s “Bad Grammar, Who Cares?” vs. “The Grammar Police”? (Or were you being ironic?)

  8. Lucy Siegel Says:

    Yes, I was being ironic! 🙂

  9. John Slattery Says:

    Dear Lucy,

    Ah, thank goodness. We need all the good grammar mavens we can get. I’m going to “share” you on facebook, if that’s OK.

    Regards,
    John

  10. http://www.sonicdigital.co.uk/index.php/member/292504/ Says:

    To know how to wait is the great secret of success….

    Sleep is pain”s easiest salve, and doth fulfill all offices of death, except to kill….

  11. Chuck Lewis Says:

    For those who ask why grammar matters, I have a direct and effective answer: If you apply for a job in my organization and use poor grammar, you won’t stand a chance. Everyone in my engineering organization can write and speak correctly and effectively. That might seem arbitrary on my part; but consider that if there are six applicants with otherwise equal qualifications, but one whose grammar is superior, the choice is easy. Even if I were hiring burger flippers, the applicants who could communicate would get the first to flip burgers for me. Why not? Eventually, the better communicators – not the better flippers – will be tapped for a supervisory spot.

  12. Lucy Siegel (@LucySiegel) Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Chuck. I totally agree with you!

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