Sometimes people don’t friend me on Facebook or tag me in posts because I can correct their writing on the fly, and they have told me in person their quiet fears concerning my grammar knowledge.
I don’t correct grammar on Facebook.
Okay, well, I do, but only when you correct mine first, and believe me I make my fair share of mistakes. We all do, and we all will continue to make grammar mistakes. There is a difference between their and they’re, it’s and its, to and too but why does it matter if I continually write in the passive voice, dangle modifiers, or split infinitives?
There are the usual suspects of course: to get a job, to keep a job, to better rob banks. Sex appeal according to Fiona Maazel. And let’s be honest, people have complained about bad grammar and the degradation of the English language for a long time. Check out George Orwell’s 1946 rant “Politics and the English Language” as an example.
Orwell argues the debasement of the English language is fundamentally connected to the political, that language dictates thought. This argument is from the guy who wrote 1984 and inventor of Newspeak so his opinion is hardly a surprise. Orwell in his essay deals in vague words, euphemisms, passive versus active voice. He argues for a show don’t tell approach and suggests grammar matters little as long as the author’s message is clear and to the point.
He’d turn over in his grave, I’m sure, if he knew about some of the everyday questions I receive from students each semester—”Can I use LOL in my essay?”
No. No you can’t.
At least, not in my class where I teach how to compose writing for the academic machine where comma splices are mortal sins, where the phrase “In this paper I will argue that…” is considered good writing, when it is really only mediocre at best, but at least the writing is straight forward. No questions are left unanswered; the reader knows without doubt what the student attempts in the essay.
LOL is indeed perfectly acceptable in another writing situation other than academia. Turnt, fleek, bae—I don’t have problems with those words. I don’t have a problem with LOL. A lot of people do. And a lot more people are upset when you can’t distinguish between there and their.
I would argue, however, Anglophone speakers do inherently understand the difference between homophones. They understand because they speak the language on a daily basis. They understand subject and predicate, preposition and gerund, though they may not know the terms. Nor are they necessarily able to diagram a sentence. They don’t need to. Their usage is built-in and intrinsically primordial, done without the necessity of thought, because that is how language works.
Think about the sentence: Birds that fly instinctively swim.
What does that sentence mean? Does instinctively modify fly or does instinctively modify swim? In speech, the sentence’s ambiguity falls away and is a non-issue. The speaker uses natural inflection to do the comma’s work (Berwick and Chomsky). At the basic level in writing, grammar mimics speech. That’s why the rule of thumb read your writing out loud, and every time you pause for breath, put in a comma sometimes works and sometimes creates a whole mess of comma splices which can look like a whole lot of sloppy writing even if you aren’t writing for academia.
Unlike speech, writing is not a natural act. You must be taught how to hold a pencil or pen and then perform precision strokes creating specific marks that make sense to everyone. I took typing in high school and had the QWERTY keyboard memorized, and still a half year later I was only at ten, fifteen words per minute. My father struggled worse and did the two finger method. Already not a good writer to begin with, when we purchased our first family computer, Dad sat hunched over in his chair, stared at the screen, then at the keyboard, then the screen, and agonized over every word. He mouthed the words he wrote, poking out his bottom lip, moving his jaw up and down, and after writing half a sentence, retreated to the garage for a cigarette and thought about not his next paragraph or his next sentence but thought about his next word. And Dad wasn’t stupid. He read Dickens right alongside the Hardy Boys and Louis L’Amour. Our house was always full of books, Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels; dime store romances, big fat dusty books and paperbacks alike. Mark Twain and Where the Red Fern Grows, Jack London and Agatha Christie. He read indiscriminately from whatever he discovered at estate auctions and garage sales. The man owned and operated his own business. But he couldn’t write. In the years he’s owned a cell phone, I’ve received only two texts messages from him.
Writing is hard and there are rules for commas that don’t fall along the lines of breath and inflection. The rules can be learned with time and effort, but not through rote drills or memorization. Writing begins with idea, draft creation, revision, more revision, editing, and ends in proofreading, but the process is more like stirring than taking ordered steps. That’s why as a writing instructor I do not get too aggravated when people can’t distinguish the written-out word their from there.
But as much as writing and grammar is a skill, it too is an art. Grammar adds meaning, nuance, and style. Grammar is the preservation of thought, the communication of ideas, prose with style and merit. And we need at least awareness of this importance otherwise we do end up living in a self-made Orwellian 1984 succumbing to Newspeak traps.
There are, of course, people like Mary Ruth Reis who fight vigilantly for the continued difference between lay and lie, a losing battle over a distinction in transition, a word disappearing from the American lexicon as we speak. She fights a losing battle; a grammatical molehill, when what really hangs in the balance of why grammar is important, is entire histories can be erased and truth can be replaced with a lie with simply the wrong word, number four on the top twenty most common grammar errors. As the recent October 2015 McGfaw Hill history textbook problem in Texas so painfully demonstrates.
McGraw Hill’s solution, as reported by the New York Times was “to replace the textbook, provide a sticker with the rewritten caption to cover up the old one or supply a lesson plan free of charge to teachers on cultural sensitivity.”
McGraw claims the mistake wasn’t their fault—that the book’s content was posted online for anyone to examine, and they thought they were on fleek because no one came forward with any objection to the book’s content. But then, we are all so often like Arthur Dent when we need to be so much more like the dolphins.