The danger of pedantry, or don’t sweat the small stuff
Hello. I am a grammar nerd. It’s been a day since my last confession. Quite how I became one beats me, since the school I attended when it was important didn’t do Latin. By the time I got to a school that did, it was too late. I did start it at an evening class, but got so distracted by my weird teacher’s sellotaped glasses it didn’t really take. Never studied Greek. (Married a man who did both – now what does that say? Am I part-Borg, trying to assimilate what I failed to develop?)
There’s a Twitter account called @YourinAmerica. It has over thirteen thousand followers yet has only (on 28th November 2012) tweeted 71 times. Only Salman Rushdie and Pippa’s bottom tribute account outperformed that. It pounces on a single grammar mistake: where “your” is typed instead of “you’re”. Brilliantly, it targets those tweeters who themselves ridicule non-native English-speakers. It combines perfect grammar with an anti-racist agenda, and publicizes pompous ignorance to amuse us all. Yes of course I’ve followed it. It makes me laugh and feel smug at the same time. Win win.
But I worry. Is my grammar addiction only schadenfreude? I shout at the radio, probably more than I should. (Is there a right amount to shout at the radio? That’s another thing I worry about. About which I worry. DO YOU SEE THE MADNESS THIS BRINGS?) Educated, middle-class people, whose (not who’s) job it is to use words correctly, say things like “different to”. All the time. I then shout “FROM”, like a thesaurus with Tourette’s. Nine out of ten times you hear “less”, they mean “fewer”. Don’t get me started on “due” versus “owing”. Nadine Dorries recently returned from the jungle claiming some MPs were jealous of her. No, Nadine. They were not. You meant envious, but they weren’t that either, you delusional woman.
Grammar is probably the main thing that keeps my low blood pressure up to safe levels. I hoard this anger, knowing it stops me keeling over at awkward moments.
I make exceptions. Songs, for instance. Lyricists have always shoehorned in illegal lines to placate the gods of Rhyme or Rhythm. Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me lists a whole load of things for which he “don’t” care. But what the hell. It’s a different register (that word again – I mentioned it before).
Does it really matter? I now try to keep my picky corrections to myself, or at least shout them to an empty room and a radio, or within earshot of my children. It’s all education. I see people hound innocent typos and unimportant mistakes on Twitter purely for the satisfaction of embarrassing their victim. They don’t want to help. If you do, there is always a DM. Do it continually (not continuously – I know, I know: I’m getting help for this) and you’ll be known as a sniping humour-lacuna, and wonder why people clam up.
I’m not saying that grammar isn’t important: words are hugely important. The wider your vocabulary, the closer you can sculpt your speech bubble around that amorphous blob of an idea you’re trying to communicate. What is important is getting your reader (or listener) to grasp what you mean. At once. Without having to ask for clarification. That is the delight of picking just the right word: it saves time. But without getting all Derrida and semiotic on you, what people say is always more important than how they say it. Only a snob would miss hearing someone yelling for them to get out of the way of a train because they were correcting the yeller’s grammar. But then they would be a dead snob. I’m not saying they deserved it.
A lot of the time now, I can breeze over grammatical bloopers, slipping past them to what the person meant. It’s a simultaneous translation thing. I reserve my ire for those people – like the tweeters attracting the Your in America bot – who demand competence yet deliver mistakes. They deserve all our immature finger-pointing. They live in such shiny glass houses it is impossible to resist pointing out the holes they make with their petty stones.