Grammar, social status, and success


I dislike people who are grammar purists, who quibble over “who” and “whom.” or over “that” and “which.” (This is mostly because I have trouble with these myself.)



But when people can’t tell the difference between “to” and “too” and “two,” or between “their” and “they’re,” or “its” and “it’s,” I get a little riled up.



So I suppose I’m one of those damned grammar purists too.



I am on the Internet a lot, and I see the way people write. I know how spell-check works, and I am very forgiving as a result. But there’s no possible way that spell-check can change “their” into “they’re.”



Well, what’s the difference? Our ancestors didn’t worry much about spelling. Well, I say, they had an excuse to write phonetically. We, having gone to Modern Schools, don’t have that excuse.



This is exactly the point made by Michael Skapinker in a recent Financial Times article. We can speak however we wish, in any circumstance. But if we want a good job, or a position of responsibility, we need to be able to speak Proper English (with grammar rules and everything) upon command. We need to be able to write memos in it, and letters, and spell correctly.



Skapinker makes a couple of other good points too: grammar is a good mental exercise, rather like logic, and helps us speak and think more clearly. This is also a good argument for learning a foreign language: it makes you think about grammar in the abstract, with rules different from those you grew up with, and allows you to switch back and forth because it’s natural to do so.



(I knew merchants in the Tunis medina who were able to cajole and haggle in six languages. I was walking through the medina with a Hawaiian friend when someone yelled “Konichi-wa!” at us, and we both laughed. “That’s because of you,” I said. “They know a little Japanese. But I bet we’ll never hear Chinese.” And just as I said it, one of the local merchants yelled out: “Ni hou ma!” And we both laughed like hell.)



Language is a tool, and grammar is a tool. Learn them, and learn to use them cleverly, and they will take you a long way.



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

2 Responses to Grammar, social status, and success

  1. starproms says:

    For people who are interested in languages, like you and me, it is very hard to read bad grammar. I blame text messaging and computer speak(ing)(language). Everything is shortened, words are left out and, careful now, meanings soon get changed. I agree with your pet hates and would add a few more: adverbs, what happened to adverbs i.e a word that describes a verb like slowly or quietly etc. These days they are either dropped altogether or substituted with slow or quiet, not the same thing at all. If we are lazy and it is laziness a lot of the time, then we stand to lose the richness of our language.
    Personally I don’t like the use of a noun turned into a verb either but that could be because I’m old fashioned. I don’t like exited for example.
    Language has to change and evolve but we have to be real(ly) careful not to alter the meaning.

    • Agree completely. I don’t want to be a purist or a prude, but I don’t like to read sloppy writing. I don’t enjoy it, and I think educated people can do better.

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