Language pedants should ask themselves what really drives them in their policing efforts: genuine concern for sliding standards or a sinisterly hidden form of one-upmanship?
A few months ago, a friend of mine and a very clever one at that began a text message with the words “its going to be a long night”. As I rode the waves of shock and smugness, imagine my delight when I then found the missing apostrophe inelegantly wedged between the Y and the S in the word “trolly’s”, an obvious indication of his inability to know a possessive adjective when he sees one or pluralise words properly. On reading the text, I could have reacted in one of two ways: stay quiet for eternity but for ever hold on to this text as a private adjunct to his every future accomplishment, or rib him until the cows come home. I went with the former.
It was not until I was on the receiving end of some no-holds-barred grammar “nazism” (not that I condone the word’s being bandied about but given its status as a much-used marker of grammar militants, I’ll use it as shorthand for now) that I was revolted at my own snobbery. Having written “here” instead of “hear” in a fleeting moment of lapsed concentration. I’d like to think autocorrect had a role to play but I may have to admit to momentary abdication of consciousness – I found myself castigated by a friend who was far more forthcoming in her criticism than I had been some weeks previously. And thank heavens, for had she not been I may have for ever remained in a most abject state of heathenness as far as she was concerned; me, who gets visibly and audibly excited over the likes of the subjunctive.
People’s reactions to poor use of grammar are manifold: quiet smugness, mock derision, actual derision, outrage and on-the-spot correction (usually accompanied by derision or a cursory tut for your troubles) probably constitute the most common. But while mockery and outrage may have their place – David Cameron’s pledge to make children illegal Tweet in a recent Twitter gaffe could well have incurred both, while the state of grammar teaching in schools and an application for a writer’s job replete with errors might trigger the latter – it’s the smugness at others’ mistakes and the accompanying assumptions we make that we ought to reassess.
Had my friend not butchered me for my own inexcusable spelling mistake, for example, she might have gone on to make all manner of judgments about my education, knowledge and intelligence. (By labelling my error “inexcusable”, I’m surreptitiously foisting a judgment on myself.) She might never have known I am just as much a stickler for good grammar as she is if she had kept her opinions to herself and not given me the chance to explain.
In light of this, I now subscribe to the belief that we should sometimes give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to spelling and grammar errors, especially in a world of hurried messaging and autocorrect. Mistaking “its” for “it’s” and “your” for “you’re” does not a criminal make; knowledge of the correct forms may not necessarily be lacking, and we cannot make the assumption that it is.
Likewise, chortling at a grammatically challenged friend whom you may have put on a pedestal by warrant of their intelligence is surely a sign, albeit a subtle one, of our implicit desire for others to fail, or to look daft, lest we one day have to experience the same fate and feel like we’re the only ones exposed to such dismal humiliation.
Perhaps the least excusable reaction to poor grammar comprises the associated judgments made about somebody’s intelligence. This argument must not be conflated with one that says we should go easy on children when it comes to correcting grammar in the classroom: it is of course vital that young people are afforded a sound understanding of language before they leave school, and things may well be changing to that effect.
Rather, it’s often the case that declaring oneself a “real grammar nazi” can mask a crude form of one-upmanship, one that finds its basis in unsolicited pigeonholing of others and a hidden self-righteousness such that you wouldn’t otherwise find in them. Would we be so quick to judge someone for struggling with basic maths – working out percentages, for example – or forgetting all their secondary school French, two elements of the curriculum likely to have been inculcated to a far greater degree than English grammar?
Granted, we may be more exposed to grammar on a daily basis, but it’s no good just seeing something the workings behind which you’ve never really been shown; the quality of grammar teaching varies between passable to barely there in Britain, so poor grammar ought not to be ascribed to an inability to process information.
While it’s of paramount importance that good grammar is upheld and taught well, a bit of self-reflection is needed before we sneer at others’ mistakes.