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In defense of Grammar

[A rant. Skip this if you can't bear the content of a rant about cant, or are too busy just now to defend sacred cows. There will always be time for off-the-wall poems later.]

Language is (perhaps among other things) a tool for communicating information, ideas, thoughts, and such from one being to another being. When we use language, that is what we are using it for most of the time, or at least we think we are. (Another topic for another day.)

In the words of Bob Newhart, "Let's go with that thought."

Tools are things humans make (mostly just humans as far as we know) to accomplish one thing or another. Hammers for nails, screwdrivers for screws, wrenches for nuts and bolts, saws, drills... all designed to be used in a specific way for particular purposes. And it behooves the tool-using human to use the right tool in the right way for the job at hand. Driving screws with a hammer, or using pliers as a wrench at best leads to failure, and at worst leads to damaging the tool, the work, or the user.

The first of those is what I want to talk about - damaging the tool by mis-using or abusing it. When one uses a tool for the wrong job or on the wrong way, parts get worn and dull that one needed to be sharp; things get bent that were only useful when straight; or perhaps outright breakage. These things all make the tool unusable - even for its correct purpose.

Language is the same. When we use language in a sloppy or careless way, we create confusion that wrecks the capacity of language to do its job - communicate accurately. When we use words that do not mean what we thought they meant (inconceivable!), or that are vague or inaccurate because we won't bother searching for a better word, we dilute or distort the meanings of words.

Notably, that's a part of the argument of those who hate grammar and spelling rules. They argue that language is how it is used. If I choose to use the word "glory" to mean "There's a knock-down argument for you!" (Credit to Humpty Dumpty) then that becomes what the word means, and nobody gets to complain about it. So let that be true, and let's just decide words have to be allowed to change. What are we going to say now when we mean what "glory" used to mean? The word is lost for that purpose.

One thing the internet has done over the last few decades is drastically, grossly shrink the vocabulary of the ordinary English-speaker. (I am not qualified to discuss the situation in other languages). We used to say television was doing this; however, the internet compared to television is like a nuclear bomb compared to a board with a nail. Knowing fewer and fewer words (because profanity or vulgarism covers all the necessary emotions?) at some point leads to inability to frame important ideas-- there just aren't enough tools left in the shed.

I think people ought to learn at least their own language well. Many have pointed out great benefits to the mind of those who learn more than just one language, and they are probably right. But let us not overreach. At least learn your own language. Take it seriously; treat it with respect instead of contempt. If you communicate in writing at all, learn how to spell and punctuate correctly. Part of knowing spelling is knowing how words are related to each other and where they come from. That's valuable! If somebody helps you by pointing out an error and a good fix, learn from it instead of crying that they shouldn't be allowed to criticize you, or that they're prejudiced against you for this or that reason.

And for heaven's sake, let's eradicate the term "Grammar Nazi". Nobody who suggests a spelling or punctuation adjustment to make your writing clearer is planning to load you into a boxcar and deposit you in a gas chamber. Nobody wants to cleanse the gene pool of inferior spellers. But anyone who cares enough about the tool we're all using to want to help us use it more successfully is not our enemy. They may not be as tactful or polite as they should, but they are not even close to resembling the real Nazis.

This spiteful term is a perfect example of abusing language. By applying "Nazi" to people who correct our spelling (even rudely), we are making the word "Nazi" a very petty, trivial insult, and also cutting ourselves off from the knowledge and memory of what a terrible terrible thing the Nazi movement was. (And still is).

Some folks have genuine disabilities that make them unable to manage language up to standards. But other folks just were and are too lazy and arrogant to pay attention in school. Obviously, courtesy and sensitivity are necessary and crucially important, because none of us knows the interior of another person's soul. And sometimes it is better to let a statement stand, or to address its content rather than its form. But one can certainly do one's best to speak well, write clear sentences, and respect their audience.

But those who jump and scream whenever they see anyone suggest a better spelling or sentence order to anyone else -- those who shout down "Grammar Nazis" -- those are the real censors. And language deserves better than to be treated that way.

An aside: it may be argued that the conventions of spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure are arbitrary and haphazard products of a mindless culture. Fine. (English spelling is notoriously capricious; this is because it is the embarrassing love-child of French, German, Swedish, Latin, Spanish, and probably a few other things.) But that is exactly why it is important to use language thoughtfully rather than sloppily. Sloppy usage speeds up the change and introduces yet more randomness, making it even harder to communicate.

Another aside: it may be argued that rules are chains that imprison creativity. Most of the genuinely creative people I know can and will shoot that argument down pretty quickly, but here is a thought: many of the Great Artistic Geniuses have become famous for breaking "rules". But they do so in ways that advance their art rather than dismantling it, and their genius lies in recognizing opportunities to do that. So if you want to be creative but a rule is in your way, put some thought into how you want to break it -- and do it for a positive artistic reason rather than the negative reason of mere sloth or apathy. There's a difference.

[The rant is concluded. For now.]

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