The cult of the grammatically correct

Social media has reinvented the grammar snob.

Amateur prescriptivists of grammar, spelling and syntax hide behind the shadows of social media, pouncing on writers who split infinitives, or worse — writers who don’t know the difference between “they’re,” “their” and “there.”

They draw artificial lines of superiority, subjecting those with less-than-perfect grammar to the bottom tier of a self-created intellectual order. 

Proper grammar becomes a signifier of intellectual capabilities and creates distinctions between the educated and the less so.

What is odd to me is how the most militant grammar snobs are the ones who claim to love language the most: the English, journalism, creative writing majors among us for whom language is a sacred medium for high art. 

The work of the oft-referenced e.e. cummings is devoid of punctuation and capitalization, yet for most poetry buffs, his poems are the subject of seamless delight. They’ll admit it’s the lack of convention that makes it so.

Celebrated author Charles Bukowski wrote prose poems, a grammar snob’s equivalent of run-on sentences.

Why will this group of academic elitists honor misused grammar in one context and decry it in another? Why are grammar snobs so quick to judge those who misplace the apostrophe in the word “it’s”?

For these students of words, language is sacred and perhaps best preserved under the ironclad conventions of syntax. 

How else to preserve something sacred, if not by keeping it hidden behind a set of arbitrary rules and traditions such as “Thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition” or “Thou shalt not split infinitives”?

A slip-up in grammar can become the star of an ad hominem attack. 

When The State Press issued a retraction for plagiarized work last September, an online commenter pointed out the em-dash that the editorial board had “pushed far beyond its capabilities in (the) third sentence.”

Even an issue as serious as plagiarism takes back seat to the strain the newspaper put on that poor piece of punctuation.

Those who overestimate the powers of their grammatical prowess miss the point.

Fashionable grammar usage is a function of communication, and yet they treat it as if it is necessarily a carrier of good and profound ideas. They believe proper grammar — especially when it’s written, less so when it is spoken — is a signifier of intellectual capacities.

Grammar snobs who belittle others aren’t being too smart, and they don’t really care about language either if it’s their aim to embarrass others into silence with their own perceived spotless grammar.

I suppose the difference between the layperson and e.e. cummings is intention: breaking rules with reverence to the rules versus breaking rules without purpose.

I have to admit that fair grammar and easy syntax do make good ideas more accessible. After all, punctuation reflects the natural rhythms of speech, divvying up communication into lines of thought.

Syntax reveals the structure of one’s thoughts, how one prioritizes ideas, and sentence structure is what labels a statement “simple,” “complex” or “compound.”

But if all a piece of writing has going for it is immaculate punctuation, impeccable syntax and perfect grammar, I don’t want anything to do with it.

It’s not perfect grammar that makes a piece of writing good. It’s the ideas that precede it.

 

Reach the columnist at ctruong1@asu.edu or follow her at @ce_truong.

 

Want to join the conversation? Send an email to opiniondesk.statepress@gmail.com. Keep letters under 300 words and be sure to include your university affiliation. Anonymity will not be granted.