Up Against the Grammar Police

Language isn't static - just look at the Internet.

There is a definite pleasure to correcting other people’s grammar. Catching someone out when they speak or write incorrectly, especially if that person is regarded as clever or of a higher status than you, gives an instant thrill. This is most evident whenever any celebrity fails in their syntax on Twitter, and people in their droves immediately leap on the opportunity to point out their error. Just for that one moment you have ‘beaten’ them, you are cleverer than this columnist, or novelist, or whoever it is that has misspoken or mistyped. For most of us, this is an occasional occurrence, a rare moment of point scoring which is quickly forgotten.

For some, however, it appears to be almost a full-time job constantly to upbraid those around them for failing to use ‘whom’ or splitting an infinitive. It seems actually to offend them that others fail to speak according to their standards. These are the ‘grammar police’ – and their calling is to boldly go (they won’t like that) in search of the linguistic errors that plague our conversation and tell everyone just how wrong they are.

Their bastion is the Plain English Campaign, (who were the ones who successfully lobbied for Tesco’s to change their ‘10 items or less’ signs); their champion, Lynne Truss. But in recent years dozens of Twitter accounts and blogs devoted to grammar correction have emerged, and there are YouTube videos with millions of views dedicated to mocking poor grammar. While there have always been those incensed enough to write letters to newspapers over a dangling modifier, their visibility has increased because the online world has massively increased the amount of textual communication we use and encounter. The internet allows all of us to share our thoughts unrestrained by the hand of a sub-editor, meaning grammatical errors are far more likely to occur. The internet also permits us to react to these mistakes instantaneously, with that sense of reckless abandon that strikes all of us online. We can all be censors now. The key distinguisher of the grammar police, however, is that they make no distinction between those who know the traditional rules of grammar and make a mistake, those who know the rules of grammar and choose to not follow them, and those who are completely unaware that they are making a mistake at all. All are the targets of online ire.

Ultimately, however, their victories are Pyrrhic ones. It is an easy win, but it is a cheap one, for the English language is relative, and it is constantly evolving. English is not some sort of static entity, frozen into exact rules to be followed in every situation and every conversation. There is no British version of the Académie Française to control our tongue, telling us all what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ in how we speak and write. Nor should there be. Context, convention and circumstance are the true arbiters of linguistic correctness. The grammar police may claim that they are simply attempting to make our language clearer. But if you’re casually chatting with your friends and end a sentence with a preposition, that’s simply an adaptation of linguistic convention, used in a casual setting where it does not remotely matter. But it is something that the grammar police, to cite Winston Churchill, up with which they will not put.

Now, this flexible attitude to language does not imply a free-for-all in terms of how we write and speak. We should not begin a job application, “I’d like to work for this company coz it looks lol.” Context is key, and a formal setting such as an interview, requires an entirely different register of language from that used among friends in the pub. Learning the existence of different registers (and the ability to deploy them) is a fundamental part of learning to speak and write. The world of academia is full of different registers – from the dialectics and paradigms that plague postmodern philosophy to the quantum entanglements and hydrostatic equilibria of theoretical physics, these are fields with languages that are often unsuitable for lay conversation. Grammar pedantry seemingly refuses to acknowledge this variety of language, and the Eats, Shoots and Leaves brigade, for all their claims to be ‘defending’ language, are in fact fundamentally misunderstanding it.

There is also a political aspect to this position. There is an implication that language is ‘owned’ and only to be pronounced correct, by certain people in a privileged position: historically, the middle-aged, the middle-class and the white. But the most creative changes in language often come from outside this group: from the young; from the waves of immigrants who have continually transformed the English language for centuries; from those who maybe did not have a traditional education of the sort that Michael Gove has been so keen to push, that drummed into them the importance of not leaving a participle hanging. These people are implicitly being told that their own versions of speech are somehow inherently worth less than those of the grammar pedant. The ‘ownership’ of language is always about power – whether that was among Mediaeval peasants who could not speak the Latin of their priests or French of their lords, or among black people today who have reclaimed the n-word as a term that only they may use. A person without a voice, or whose voice is deemed ‘wrong’, is stripped of a critical aspect of their agency as an individual.

Every year the predictable furore over the inclusion of new terms in the Oxford English Dictionary sees these people at their most apoplectic. The latest controversy surrounded the inclusion earlier this month of ‘YOLO’ (an acronym for ‘You Only Live Once’), ‘adorbs’ (short for adorable) and ‘clickbait’ in the dictionary’s online version. Endless irritated responses were trotted out, but their position is ultimately no more sophisticated than “it’s new and I don’t like it”: a sample comment from the Daily Mail website reads, “Is there any wonder that the English language is rapidly going down the pan!” Such complaints, and the language they’re couched in, should tell you all you need to know of the sort of people who shout loudest about the minutiae of linguistics.

By all means, speak and write clearly, and suitably, but also tailor language for audience and environment. English is not owned by anyone; rules can be bent, conventions forgotten and neologisms embraced. Language is for everyone, and we should revel in its richness, complexity and irregularity, not live in the blinkered world of those who start petitions to get ‘ten items or fewer’ signs in the supermarket. English is too much fun for that.


 Image credit: Daniel Silliman

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