Recent events have proven to me that I truly have become an old fuddy-duddy. Well, naturally — it’s self-evident that anyone who could use a prissy expression like “fuddy-duddy” has to be one. I hope you understand that I’m just trying to keep the language G-rated. What I’m trying to say is that I have joined the grammar police.
It’s true. When I see poor grammar and punctuation, my fingers itch to take a red pen and correct the remarks. Of course, that would usually mean marking up the screen of my own laptop, and I can’t do that.
But the mistakes are becoming more and more common, and more and more accepted as the norm. We
can blame the haste of email and the abbreviations of texting, but the fact remains that many of us simply don’t care anymore. We substitute your for you’re, their for there, it’s for its, and never give it a thought. We fail to use commas before names in direct address, and we see apostrophes all the time, not to indicate possession, but simply used oddly in ordinary plurals.
I grapple with this occasionally in my writing classes. I’m glad to say that most of the students I teach bring strong grammar and punctuation skills to their writing exercises. But I’ve had some students whose assignments were so filled with mistakes and typos as to be almost unreadable. I wrestle with what I should do. On one hand, I’m hired to teach them the craft of writing, not the grammar they should have learned as kids. But if I don’t tell them, who will? I’ve had a few students thank me, and vow to return to the standards they once had. But I’ve had others tell me, “That stuff doesn’t matter anymore.” And some of those were schoolteachers—if teachers don’t know correct English, how can they teach it? I can’t convince them that editors still care, nor that I see over and over that the students who bring the strongest grammatical skills to their assignments are also often the best writers.
I’ve also encountered it in writers who’ve asked if they could guest-blog for me on my personal blog, whose requests were so sloppy and mistake-ridden that I felt embarrassed for them. I always give them a polite decline because I don’t want to hurt their feelings. What I want to say is, “You’re a writer, someone who has devoted yourself to the use of language. How can you care so little for it?” But I can’t accept them because their bad chooses wouldn’t just reflect poorly on them, but on me as well.
I hope I don’t sound too smug or superior. I’m not perfect in this area, either. I’m glad my books are copy edited because I learn some new grammatical point that I’ve missed with every book. Sometimes I have to ask for grammar or punctuation advice on writing lists, when I’m unsure about some point. And in my haste, I’ve made some egregious errors in emails, too. (Yes, I know some would say we shouldn’t start a sentence with and or but, though in creative writing, I consider those choices acceptable. Besides, that’s part of my style.) When I discover that’s the way I’ve presented myself, I cringe with embarrassment.
I worry about what this says about our culture. We’re part of a global marketplace today. Other countries seem to place a higher value on education than we do. Do they guard against the erosion of their language better, too?
How about you? Are you a member of the grammar police, or someone who should be arrested?