"I'm silently correcting your grammar."
That's what it says on my new coffee cup, and that’s what I do.
Can’t help it. I'm commenting (to myself) about the stylistic quality of what I'm hearing in this conversation we're having. I'm commenting in detail, all in my head.
An obsession with the rules of language arose in me early, and has sent down deep roots over the ensuing decades.
I'm the son of an editor. I wrote well from an early age. I was successively an English major, a newspaper editor and a management/writing instructor. I designed and delivered a daylong training session for working professionals called “A Grammar Refresher.”
You don’t easily get over such a history.
And there are a lot of us so afflicted. When we amateur grammarians are together – such as enjoying a family TV evening – we drive everyone else to distraction. All commercials, and all newscasts and other programs, are met with a stream of critical commentary on whatever language is involved. Needless to say, the remarks rarely are complimentary.
Reading the newspaper is a special treat for grammar addicts – especially those who are recovering newspaper editors.
(Do you know how many times “its” was mistakenly presented as “it’s” in today’s paper?)
For the information of those who care – and the many who don’t – there is nothing sacred about the relationship between the apostrophe and the possessive. It doesn't always have to be there. Have you noticed that "his" lives happily without one?
But the poor apostrophe does have a number of jobs, one of which is to show elision, the dropping of one or more letters from a word. “All’s well that ends well,” for example, is a statement that bounces well off the tongue when "All's" takes over for “all is.” That’s one of Shakespeare’s many gifts to the linguist.
How did the apostrophe come about, anyway?
’Way back in the history of our language, I’m told, you’d use the possessive pronoun “his” in this way: “John his book.” Over time, the term was shortened to “John’s book,” with the apostrophe -- contributed by the French language -- marking the spot where the possessive pronoun used to be. (The feminine possessive was never granted an elision.)
The coffee cup that triggered all this is a gift to editor-writer me from my writer-editor daughter Maureen, another recovering newspaper editor and self-identified grammar addict.
Now that I'm older and wiser, somewhat, I generally keep my critiques to myself. The instinct to help people improve their linguistic habits is never appreciated. They take it personally, and being right does not make you popular.
However, you’ve read this far. So let’s keep it academic and presume we can explore further – carefully – the topic of language and how people use it.
Caution is still called for because even in writing this is NOT an abstract matter. Some really ugly exchanges can be ignited by a sarcastic chuckle at someone’s self-assured remark about, say, the serial (Oxford) comma. That's the one that goes before the "and" at the end of a series. Or not.
Why do people take this stuff so personally?
Apparently, your speech is closely tied to your sense of self. Something you’ve learned is something you’ve earned, and it’s precious to you. Experience proves that people’s first experience with anything becomes their inviolable conviction about it.
They’ll fight you, maybe physically, if you demean some treasured definition or usage they picked up the year they learned to talk.
We refer to it as “grammar,” but what do we mean?
A veteran reporter once told me she had been given a test by a newspaper that was considering her for a staff job. She was asked to name the parts of speech. “Well, I could think of subject and predicate,” she told me, “but then I couldn’t remember the others.”
Sorry, my dear friend, subject and predicate generally are considered parts of a sentence, not parts of speech. (She got the job anyway. Probably sounded fine to the editor.)
Some people think anything you say or write is included in the definition of grammar. But some don't. This field is infested with tight-minded lawgivers. I saw one formal definition that confined grammar to the rules for use of the eight parts of speech. Or is it nine? Ten? More?
The parts of speech are noun, pronoun, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection ("Hey!") and article/determiner ("the" and "a"). That's eight.
Then articles/determiners can be split off from adjectives and further divided into definite (the) and indefinite (a). And verbs can be lexical or auxiliary. Conjunctions can subdivide into a couple of classes. And so on.
You can simplify things with one broad and inclusive definition: Grammar is a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.
Not so fast. Imagine tossing the red meat of the term “presumed prescriptive” into the middle of a conversation among a few grammarians.
Language abuse is constant. Even normally forgiving people have to be sick of the inappropriate use of the adverb “incredibly” these days. “Incredible” means beyond belief. “I’m incredibly impressed.” Do you mean you don’t believe you’re impressed? Or are you suggesting we shouldn’t believe you’re impressed? Or are you just mindlessly using the word to indicate you’re really, really impressed?
As one of these sloppy usages sweeps the country, the foul phenomenon reminds us once again how handy a popular cliché is in saving a speaker/writer the pain of thinking too much – even as it robs the listener/reader of meaningful value.
In the end, your use of language needs to account for two important matters:
1. 1. Most people don’t know or care about everyday grammar errors. However, if your target readership/listenership includes 25 percent who know proper grammar, those people do care about the difference. They tend to be judgmental, and they tend to be influencers -- meaning they're very ready with very definite opinions, and many people listen to them.
2. 2. You wouldn’t write if you didn’t intend to have readers. If your readers have the normal range of sophistication, you want the text to be useful and pleasant to everybody, the least educated and most educated among them.
To butcher a famous comment by Professor Henry Higgins: It doesn't matter what you say or write if you don't word it correctly.
See also: Project Management: Words Matter