At this point in our lives, we’re all well acquainted with grammar Nazis. We’re all too familiar with their incessant patrolling of the Internet and enforcement of the rules and regulations of language. “Your” is “you’re” and “good” is “well” and I after E except before C.
As a former grammar Nazi myself, I am all too familiar with their plight. It’s a tough burden to bear, this inherent responsibility that all of us have to dutifully inform individuals when they are or are not writing correctly.
Last week, American linguist John McWhorter wrote a piece for The New Republic and weighed in on the newest battle over grammar: the decision to eliminate the apostrophe.
Many were outraged at the suggestion. What sort of anarchy would follow in an unpunctuated world?
“In general, the recreational condemnation of colloquial grammar is America’s last condoned brand of classism,” McWhorter said of his critics.
In his column this week, State Press writer Peter Northfelt condemned the suggestion of foregoing the apostrophe.
“By understanding that the “confines” of grammar can actually transform artistic expression, we could embrace this tool to use in creative writing and communication,” Northfelt argues.
I’m inclined to agree with this statement, but not for the reasons Northfelt is asserting.
Northfelt stresses the importance of prescriptive grammar, the study of the rules of language that are generally held to be correct or incorrect by society’s standards.
However, linguists also study the rules and patterns of language and how they shape grammar in our day-to-day lives. This is referred to as descriptive grammar and language in context — what I believe is more in line with what allows us to be creative in our writing.
British comedian and author Stephen Fry commented on the general snobbery of our generation when it comes to policing other people’s grammar.
“Anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed,” Fry said. “There is no right language or wrong language any more than there are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.”
One merely has to peruse through a Facebook dashboard to see what Fry is talking about. The rampant checking of incorrect grammar is everywhere, and in an attempt to assert our intelligence and “educate” others, we simply may be stifling individual linguistic expression simply because we were raised to uphold prescriptive grammar.
I am my no means suggesting we throw all rules of syntax out the window. However, by acknowledging that language is a living, fluid creation and not a static, stagnant set of rules to follow, we open up our writing to a bevy of new possibilities.
American author Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007 for his groundbreaking novel, “The Road.” McCarthy is well known for his minimal use of punctuation, including his refusal to use quotation marks altogether.
“There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate,” McCarthy said.
While this absence of quotations is seen by some as pure anarchy, McCarthy’s readers will understand that this method adds a certain depth to his work that might otherwise be undermined by excessive punctuation.
At several points, it is unclear who in the novel is speaking to whom because of the lack of quotations. But the ambiguity of these exchanges leaves it up to the reader to decipher and makes the experience all the more enriching.
It is this kind of creativity in writing that illustrates why we can’t call out individual “mistakes” or incongruencies in writing. What may look foreign or incorrect to us may in fact be correct to others in the context of their writing, or an experiment with language that may turn out to be a new standard in grammatical rules.
Mastery of the rules is important when studying any discipline, but we should never be afraid to break them. The results may often be unpredictable and jarring but could one day be considered groundbreaking.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @lolonghi