Open letter from a grammar snob

Telling people they have made a grammatical error is not an exercise in privilege. Privilege is thinking that some people can't do better and that we, the superior, should just let them make fools of themselves.

I can’t blame people for considering writing an easy thing to do. And I am not even talking about creative writing whereby you craft stories and poems and tales of epic adventure. For all practical purposes, ever since the world wide web got here, we all became “writers”. After all, the keyboard is the default tool for interacting with the internet, is it not?

So we type our hearts out and we chat each other up and we opinionate about all things under the sun as and when they happen because we feel we must. This is okay, I guess.

What I don’t think of as okay is the assumption that the rules of language are somehow secondary to our urge to communicate. And that people are justified in saying “so what?” when bad sentence structure and faulty grammar is pointed out to them. The unspoken refrain seems to be — don’t tell us we are wrong – it hurts our feelings.

As someone who deals with the written word day in and day out as part of work, I can’t say I care much for the feelings of people who disrespect the rules of language. Grammar is the vessel that holds language together. And while colloquialisms do change the course of linguistic flow over periods of time, that is no excuse for bad usage, especially when you are doing it out of deliberate carelessness (as opposed to honest ignorance).

A piece in Vagabomb caught my attention this morning. It says correcting other people’s grammar is “pretentious, patronising, and elitist”. While there is definitely a point to be made here about rudeness not being a nice thing, the piece seems to generalise far too much when it comes to the “be nice to people” aspect. I happen to think that when someone corrects my grammar, she is being respectful towards me. What manner of politeness is being exercised when you let a friend misspell a word without correcting them? What social purpose is served by letting SMSese and WhatsApp-level text become the default mode of communication among educated people (or worse, children)?

Newspapers have style sheets for a reason. A well-constructed sentence conveys more than its meaning. It says that you are a writer capable of articulating your thoughts in a lucid manner. It says that you have clarity of thought and that you can communicate that clarity to your readers. It speaks volumes about your reliability as well. People also tend to trust good quality writing more.

You ask, “But what of people who are not good at English? Do they not have the right to express themselves?” My answer of course is yes, they do have the right to express themselves. But they also have the responsibility of doing it properly. If your response to that is that grammar does not matter, I can only assume that you do not care about how seriously they and their words are taken.

The point about being nice to non-native English speakers is also a red herring. We should be lobbying for them to be able to use their native languages online with ease, not fighting for their right to write bad sentences in English. It is not patronising to fix people’s grammar. It is patronising to suggest that these people can’t do any better.

For the record, I write this with full awareness of the fact that language changes; that the mistakes of today become the default usages of tomorrow; that everyday culture changes the meanings of words. But there is a difference between a culture’s adoption of an altered language and the casual mutilation of a language by an individual because she does not give a fuck. That is where good grammar snobbery comes in. A Grammar Nazi is someone who, by their very presence, forces people to try harder and do better. Please don’t tell me that’s not important.

Start listening to Is India's past ruining India's future?
Start listening to Is India's past ruining India's future?