There isn’t much that doesn’t offend us these days, it seems. The offence runs the gamut from politics to parenting to – you guessed it – language. And figures of speech and grammar are no exception. In the last day alone, I have noticed four different times people have corrected someone’s spelling or grammar online.
Look, I understand that we’re homeschoolers. We hold our children to high standards.
We meticulously pore over good literature. We value “living books,” we teach that in order to be understood it is necessary to be precise, we Google and search and memorize. Above all, we read. And we never ever use abbreviations in text messages.
But at what point does our correction and insistence on good grammar and punctuation leave the realm of helpful and practical and become merely pedantic?
I Hate the Oxford Comma
Or rather, I couldn’t care less about it. Like most people in the (normal) non-academic world, I don’t give two hoots if you add it or not. Honestly, it looks odd to me there just hanging beside the “and.” It seems out of place and rather embarrassed at being thrust into the fray if you ask me. But hey, suit yourself.
The same goes for things like the split infinitive and the subjunctive mood. Oh, and the insistence of the use of “may I” instead of “can I” and the ever so tiresome idea of never ending a sentence with a preposition.
“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” – Winston Churchill
If you’re one of those people that likes to stick to those rules, be my guest. Just know that dictionaries add about 600 new words every quarter. And you don’t have to go too far back into history for English to sound like complete gibberish. Indeed, spelling did not become standardized until 250 odd years ago.
And yet, Americans spell certain English words differently from their British origins. Ask me how I know. I had to learn to drop the (apparently) useless “u” when I moved here and learn to stress the second syllable instead of the first as I used to in British English.
Language and spelling – even pronunciation – is way more fluid than we give it credit for. Rules are only useful so far as they promote communication and not much else.
I went to a private school in Bombay, India. My classmates and I were the last students to follow the British curriculum in the 50 years after India’s independence. I was accorded the best education I could get. My parents made sure of that. My teachers made sure that all the English I heard and read was correct. My ear therefore was trained and if it didn’t sound right, I knew it was probably not correct.
My grasp over the English language is mostly intuitive, not academic.
I have never, ever, ever diagrammed a sentence and I couldn’t have told you an active voice from passive a few years ago. And the only reason I care now is because the plugin on my blog says I need more brief sentences in active voice for readability.
Why am I telling you this? Because I think there are some of us are naturally better at picking out and remembering good grammar and most of that learning is done through listening to the right form of it and communication. As much as I am in favor of memorization, I do not think analyzing sentences and memorizing the rules of grammar do much to make you grammatically accurate.
With All Your Learning, Get Understanding
But here’s really why I’m telling you this. I certainly wouldn’t correct people in a face to face conversation about their pronunciation of a certain word. Why do we feel so entitled to correct perfect strangers in an online setting?
And what about friends? I used to, you know. I used to correct them. Until I realized I wasn’t perfect. Mea culpa.
In fact, in some areas – like patience, like serious, technical problem solving, I was decidedly deficient. I’m just blessed that things like coding, engineering and logic are not the language of everyday communication – that I am not judged on them each time I want to say something.
Can we not overlook some foibles out of basic respect? Or does love cover a multitude of sins unless they happen to be those of grammar and punctuation?
This isn’t an argument to ignore spelling “your” and “you’re” correctly or even to not get “there,” “their,” or “they’re” right, this is a plea to stop being such a stickler about the form of something that you miss the meaning or, worse, deign it to be so far beneath you that you must either stop and point it out in a very obvious manner or just not read it.
Yes, there are some cases when the mistake is so blatant that it changes the meaning of a sentence. And in those cases, it is (perhaps) acceptable to ask for clarification (I would put unnecessary apostrophes in this category) but I would still be careful.
What is the impulse behind correcting grammar? Is it the momentary superiority we feel about knowing something another doesn’t? Or is it genuine miscommunication that needs clarification? If good grammar is a sign of good breeding, when did politeness stop being part of it?
What I Intend to Teach My Children
If you have read my book The Classical Unschooler, you know that even though I tend to lean toward the classical model of education, I am not a fan of learning something for its sake alone. As such, I don’t intend to insist the children learn Latin, for example. Or sentence diagramming.
I tend to be fairly practical in my approach. This is, of course, not to say that they shouldn’t pursue something that gives them obvious pleasure just because it’s not practical. But, by and large, we focus on what’s useful.
If I notice that my children are having trouble expressing themselves – verbally or in written form – in a way that hinders communication with others, that will be our focus. I will give them the tools they need to express themselves well, even with beauty. But we will only pursue the rules in as so far as they achieve those ends.
I will no longer turn rules into idols. The world has enough grammar Nazis already.