Aug 11, 2021–Are you a grammar grinch?

I belong to the social media group A Way With Words. They air a fascinating podcast that explores language and writing. I always learn something. Even when I don’t want to. That’s because the group is a nest of grammar grinches.

Every few months I venture in to post a question or share an observation about how we use our language, knowing it will trigger the tightly wound guardians of grammar.

Here’s a recent question I posted: “Shouldn’t it be ‘The King and Me?’”

Now you should be able to tell this was written in jest. I really don’t have an issue with the title of the award-winning Broadway musical. But I was curious how those who care about the use of “me” vs “I” would rise to the bait. I was richly rewarded.

Within hours this post racked up 70 replies. There were so many earnest responses explaining the difference between subject and object, lack of context, exceptions for titles, and who was I question the creative genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

They missed the joke.

I felt I was being scolded in junior high English class. Many are English teachers. I know this, because they always proudly include the fact in their replies.

Some were curt and simply replied, “No,” as if they were the final arbiters of all things English and were offended anyone had the temerity to get something so obvious wrong.

On the other hand, I was impressed by the few clever souls who got the joke and were able to reply without revealing it was a joke. My favorite was, “The King can never be a subject.”

Finally, one poster bravely asked, “Are you joking?”

To which I replied simply, “Yes.”

They went on to explain why I was wrong, anyway.

This compulsion to “grammar-splain” fascinates me. Is it a need to feel superior? To be helpful? Or is it a nervous tic, like picking the dead fly out of your alphabet soup?

I too love and defend the English language, and am bemused by the current trend toward texting, letter shortcuts, and emojis. Yet if you study linguistics, language is never static. Just remember how difficult it was to first read Shakespeare, or even a novel from the 19th century. Heck, I dare you to translate beatnik lingo from the 1950s. The way we use language changes for every generation, and will never stop. That is one of the reasons it is so fun to play with.

My cardinal rule in writing is clarity, and letting the level of grammar pickiness fit the intent. As a teacher, I was always telling my students I didn’t care about their spelling and punctuation if the assignment was to write a creative story to read in class. On the other hand, if they were writing a letter to the editor, grammar mattered.

These days, no one escapes the grammar grinch. Microsoft has installed one in their software, so even as I type I get highlighted words and underlined phrases reminding me that “accommodate” has a double “m,” and I need a comma after the word “actually,” which I am not supposed to start a sentence with. Or end that sentence with “with.” Or sentence fragments.

I know this column will trigger some readers.

But that’s perfectly all right with I.