[This post was originally titled Grammar and the Great White Males. This offended some of the people it referred to. I think they are right. Hence the new title]
The Grammar Police keep on picking me up when I discuss good grammar, spelling and punctuation, saying things like “I thought you said grammar doesn’t matter.”
I didn’t say that, though. I said that grammar is a description of how people write or speak, not a prescription for how they ought to write or speak. I said that the value of what someone has to say doesn’t depend on them using what others consider to be correct grammar.
If you believe that grammar is a useful thing for self-expression, then you should be able to see that a person who doesn’t have is at a disadvantage. You aren’t helping them by ignoring what they are saying while shoving apostrophes and personal pronouns at them. This is beautifully expressed in this article (thanks for the reference Anna Kahn) which argues that literacy is a privilege and should not be used to put down people less privileged than yourself. The author talks about a newbie on a discussion forum who gets linguistically skewered:
Here are some of the things we don’t know about Jonny. Jonny might be dyslexic. He might have spent his entire childhood being shamed and belittled by his teachers and classmates because his brain works differently from theirs. He might come from an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional home, where focusing on his English studies comes a distant second to keeping the pieces of his body and spirit together. He might be living on food stamps and lacking the necessary fuel to fire his brain’s higher-level synapses. He might avoid school altogether because his head has been knocked into lockers one too many times. He might have a brain injury. He might have spent most of the third grade hooked up to life support in the Children’s Hospital while his classmates were getting hooked on phonics. He might be a refugee from a country whose native language has an entirely different writing system, or no writing system at all. He might be surviving any combination of these circumstances, and more. At this point, we can’t even be certain that Jonny is spelling his own name correctly – and this is a tragedy, not a joke.
Read this article. If after reading it you still feel you should correct other people’s grammar then you are probably a bit of an asshole.
I can believe all this and still aim for clarity and easy comprehension in my own writing, which can be helped by good grammar and spelling. These are useful tools and should be taught in school. But people who fail to learn them are still people, are not necessarily stupid or lazy, and they should be listened to with respect. </rant>