Sunday, January 22, 2012

In Defense of (Good) Grammar

My last post was devoted to my dismay over the misuse of irony in everyday speech. Click here to see: "If Nobody's Perfect, Does That Mean I Don't Exist?"  Today I present you with a rather short manifesto on the importance of good grammar.  A word of caution before I proceed: I am using the adjective “good” purposefully.  I did not say that I would discuss PERFECT grammar, just GOOD grammar.  So know that I am certain that you will find, within this post and others, grammatical errors.  I know that the grammar presented here is good, not perfect.  But I digress.....
A very clever student of mine once asked me to clarify some details about William Shakespeare and his writings.  She asked me if it were true that Shakespeare had invented over 1500 words (words that appeared in his plays but not in written language previous to that).  She went on to suggest that he often used nouns as verbs and/or adjectives and vice-versa.  All true, I conceded, though I was unsure of the exact number of words he had invented.  My shrewd student then asked an obvious question: “If Shakespeare wasn’t concerned about his grammar, and we are still reading his plays today, then why do we have to be???”  A good question, indeed.  The answer comes in two parts.
First, and foremost, good grammar is important for the sake of clarity.  When I was somewhere in the neighborhood of three years old, I innocently asked my mother where it was my father was going when he left our home everyday.  Here’s what she said to me: “Daddy is going to work.  He’s going to work on the subway.”  Shortly thereafter, I told someone that my father worked on he subway.  My mother thought this was hilarious, as my father worked in New York City, in the World Trade Center.  He rode the subway to get there.  I, on the other hand, am happy to point out that my love for the English language and good grammar dates back to a very early age.  What my mother should have said was something like this: “Daddy is going to work.  He has to take the subway to get to work.” My interpretation of her statement was completely correct.

Second, and perhaps equally as important, good grammar presents a good image.  Last month, when I blogged about vocabulary and the proper meaning of irony, I talked about the impression you leave on people based on your (proper) vocabulary use.  The same is true here.  Improper grammar in a letter, an email, on a website, even - dare I say - in your Facebook status, sends the wrong message to the reader; it tells the reader you are either lazy or uneducated, or both.  A college professor of mine once explained it this way (and I’m paraphrasing here)..... You go to a restaurant and they serve you coffee in a chipped mug.  On the surface, probably not a big deal.  This restaurant you’re in is a diner, not a three Michelin star rated emporium.  Or is it a big deal?  If the management of this restaurant can serve you a beverage in a chipped mug without hesitation perhaps they are also a bit lax in the storage of their ingredients, or the quality of the ingredients is not a priority.  Perhaps their food prep guidelines are also a bit looser than they should be.  All of these logical questions and thoughts develop as a result of a single chipped mug.  Once again, it is not always the best course of action to “judge a book by its cover,” but it is a natural assumption and, let’s face it, the odds tend to be in your favor when you do.

With all that said, are there special rules of grammar for social media? Or, said another way, are relaxing of the rules permitted on social media websites?  I say the answer to that is mostly yes, with a few caveats (and note that these caveats apply mainly to Facebook, as the character limits on Twitter require further shortcuts):
  • Typing a tweet or status update in all caps is unnecessary and constitutes YELLING AT ME.  So unless you are my dad, please make sure your caps lock is off.
  • Punctuation is still necessary.  Semicolon use (proper or not) is not essential, but a period between sentences is required. Your friends/followers want to read a clear thought, not the ramblings that go on inside your head.
  • Spelling counts.  Common shortcuts and abbreviations are okay (def, lol, lmao, thru, etc) but in the age of spellcheck there is no excuse for misspellings of other words. 
  • My BIGGEST pet peeve of all - improper use of a word is a huge no-no.  This means you need to sit down and figure out the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” as well as “your” and “you’re.”  Bonus points if you know the difference between “affect” and “effect.”