Grammar police, your contribution to the world will be forgotten.



::This was originally posted on March 11, 2014. Then, as today, it was a response to someone who, for a lack of anything better to contribute, reverts to being the grammar police to try and negate what you've said. It's one reason I try to avoid pointing out typos and misspellings. Talk to the person and address what they're saying. Perfect grammar and spelling isn't an indicator of intelligence. And, as I get older, I find I type too fast and I often use homonyms or my sometimes numb fingers don't hit the keys correctly and letters are skipped. It doesn't change the idea, but it does indicate if the reader is looking to understand or, yes, pick nits and be eaters of parasites. Be a creator, not a critic. A critic is like a eunuch in a harem; he knows how it's done, sees how it's done, but can't do it himself.::

When I was in the fifth grade, my mother gave me a copy of Catherine Marshall’s book Julie for my birthday.

“You ought to have the book with your name,” she said with a smile.

She’d bought the book at the Cando TruValue Hardware store, which had a wire rack that turned and carried various paperback books on it. I cracked it open that night, and read it in a few days. Over the years, I’ve read it many times, my copy becoming creased and worn. It is a powerful story, but one of the scenes that stands out the most for me has to do with the character Julie, who helped her father with a struggling newspaper, when she missed a typo in a local advertisement.

From Catherine Marshall’s Julie, published by Avon Books, 1985



I suppose it stuck with me partly because it was a bad word and I was young, but more, I think, because of how it all played out in the story. At first the store owner was outraged at the typo, but then quickly changed his tune as people began flocking to the store to buy men’s shirts. Eventually, he requested that the “typo” to be carried into the next ad, and wondered if the ad could also be placed upside down.

It was one of my first encounters with the happenstance of language accidents.

I found that I enjoyed the double meanings of homonyms, of accidental typos, questionable spellings, and how they created a kind of poetic trick on the reader who bothered to notice. Instead of fixating on the wrong word or off spelling, it became a game, deciphering what meaning was now construed with this incorrect word or surprise twist of letters. As with people, the faults revealed more of the nature of the word than a perfect facade.

This has carried over, in the same vein, to the “happy accidents” quality I rely upon in my art.

More art than I care to admit has come about by happy accidents, those moments when something spilled, dropped, or was mistakenly used. I often find when I let go of the fierce control I insist upon, my brain does things I could not have come up with. I marvel at Theodor Seuss Geisel, and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, full of nonsense words which are, essentially, words horribly misspelled and mangled for a larger purpose.

I naturally want to obey rules, whether in art or language, and I have for too long fallen victim to perfectionism and the need to police it in others to reassure myself of my own value and intellect. To my great delight, I find that my brain seems to be speeding up faster than my hands can translate, and that more errors and slips seem to seep into my creative endeavors that I try so hard to control. My perfectionism cracks a bit, I quit being so harsh on others, and some truly unique things come through the gate that is opened by the heralds of typos and grammar slip-ups. It as if the jarring mistake tosses a stone in the still surface of our mind and gets us to notice the bump and do a bit of thinking.

But there are no allowances for such things, it seems, because of the grammar police.

And Lo, They Were The Grammar Police


The grammar police are a unique linguistic breed, who seem to want a world without errors, marching under the flag of professionalism and intelligence. All things must be as they are supposed to be, no exceptions. They even point out–yes, true story–that they aren’t the grammar police if they are correcting a typo, for a typo isn’t technically grammar.

And how do they justify their behavior?

1. You Have To Earn The Right To Make Mistakes


It was in winter, my third year of college, during a Thursday morning critique, and a fellow art student had pinned his latest ink drawing to the wall. Immediately a professor leapt at his use of repetitive line work. The student ducked his head a bit, and when the professor came up for air, the student named a few other well-known artists he liked who did something similar and who he was trying to learn from by trying their style.

“They are famous, and they’ve earned the right to break the rules,” the professor said. The class laughed, and I wondered at the logic.

If Lewis Carroll had written the Jabberwocky on a blog years before any renown, would he be slaughtered on Twitter for his use of the non-word “frumious”?

2. It’s Not Professional To Have Errors


I write thousands and thousands of words a week, and read even more, watching for errors under time constraint. I miss some. And, on some days, I miss many. Am I more professional based on the quantity of errors I do or do not commit?

Professional is a strange word.

The grammar police seem to think the output is what makes you a professional, that visible product. That is part of it, certainly. But professionalism also entails how experienced you are at something and how well you understand the foundation of what you’re doing, as well as how you react towards those behaving poorly. You might have 20 years of experience and be extremely skilled and a professional in all other aspects, but still commit typos.

In other words, the outward appearance of the product is only a sliver of the full professional package. It is, of course, what people see and people judge books by covers, particularly grammar police people. All other qualities of professionalism are unfortunately sacrificed on the altar of “i before e except after c.”

“I just think it looks more professional,” they say, and that is the key phrase: looks. Much like the smooth talking serial killer, it looks more professional.

This has lead me to question whether I care to be a professional, or whether I care for friends and foes that want to “help” me be more professional.

Perhaps the amateur has more creative freedom than the professional, more leeway to whiffle through the tulgey wood, using writing as their vorpal blade.

Perhaps, because I am a professional, I will discover the errors on my own when I go back and re-read my work and change them on my own terms. Perhaps I am not desiring of the crowd that demands that level of flawlessness, because they are an ugly and difficult crowd to please indeed. Perhaps I’m serving up sloppy joes and fine dining and sack lunches and finely plated desserts at any given moment, looking for intellectual gourmands instead of light-weight pretentious gourmets.

3. I Am Only Trying To Help


I have had, over the 13 years of blogging on the internet, friends and foes alike point these errors out. Friends, I assume, do so for “my benefit”, believing that what they want, I want, not understanding the value I place on imperfection.

"I'm just trying to help you out,” more than one email has said, before a friend points out a typo in the day’s blog post, or a post he read from five months ago. “You used the wrong form of the word 'their' in the third paragraph."

I enjoy that about as much as anyone enjoys being told that they are doing it wrong, whether it is parenting, pastoring, managing, or creating. It is only helpful from a limited few people whose opinions matter to me (very, very limited), even if we are supposedly operating on terms of professionalism.

I prefer to approach people as how they are, and not as how I think they could or should be. I prefer to approach their creative work in the same way. I prefer that others would do the same.

Some folks see things first as what they aren’t, and fixate on correcting it. This, they think, is helping. This, I think, is horse assery.

A Measurement Of Intellect


After more than a decade of emails noting errors, blog comments pointing out misspellings at the end of my magnum opus, and snitty snarky tweets gloating about corrections, I’ve come to understand that the grammar police first and foremost must make sure there are no misspellings to be found, no errant apostrophe, above anything else that might be accomplished with the written word. They are protecting the integrity of the codex, perhaps. 

The greatest idea in the world cannot find a place in their soul if there is an extra letter or misplaced apostrophe somewhere to be found.

With comments dripping in judgmental sarcasam (with or without an emoticon), I am certain it is less about the typo than it is about some problem of their own. A feeling of superiority, a source of identity, a bad day and a chance to push someone down, an excuse for not taking the leap and creating much on their own, or perhaps something so crass as to drum up freelance writing work by showing off their professional skills of proofreading while drowning in the lack of professionalism in delivery.



Such correction leaves me feeling cornered, that I need to prove to someone that I know how to write, how to speak, that I’m not illiterate. That I have to somehow conjure up how many books I’ve read, or some other proof that I and my ideas have viability despite a misplaced apostrophe. I despise this; we are not in a contest to see who is smarter, unless you’re that annoying guy who has to one-up everyone in the room and correct people in the midst of conversation when someone says some fact that is incorrect.

No one likes that guy. He kills conversation and makes people feel dumb so that he might feel smart. And the grammar police are his first cousin.

Intelligence is a lifelong journey, not a contest. It is not indicated by spelling and grammar.

Whether they realize it or not, the grammar police have a hand in killing the motivation to create and keep trying. They don’t inspire improvement, but only inspire me to block, black list, ignore, and report as spam.


 
Yesterday’s blog post was bait. And I got three bites via email, though none commented on the actual content of the article.

To those of you already finding things to correct in this post: I’m going to tell you something straight up about the typos I’ve made that you think I should correct–I don’t give a damn.

One typo, one accidental extra apostrophe–even three or four, maybe!–don’t make it impossible for me to understand what someone wrote. I’m not looking to find fault, I’m looking to learn new ideas, however they arrive.

The grammar police look to find fault. True readers look to learn.

More than all the flawless copy in the world, I want to read about great ideas and I want to write great ideas. I don’t associate intelligence and creativity with proper spelling. The best writer and philosopher and thinker isn’t the one who passes the standardized grammar and spelling test. You can find flawless copy in the instructional manual of a toilet. It means nothing.

But the grammar police come waddling along, only able to learn, it seems, if all i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, taking notes as they write thinking that they are the world’s proofreader, parasitically feeding off of drips and spills of other’s minds.

To arrive at the end of an idea-filled article with only a list of corrections and a willingness to take the time to make them known to whomever might listen is a phenomenal missing of the point.

So to you, who turn to being the grammar police whether as a first or last resort, remember: Your contributions to this world will be forgotten.

They will.

You made nothing, besides a fuss. You did nothing, besides embarrassing someone for a simple mistake.

Whenever I am faced with people who are quick to criticize and point out all the things I’m doing wrong as I’m out there trying to do the work before me the best I can in the given situation, I think of the classic excerpt from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. – Teddy Roosevelt, “The Man In The Arena“


I didn’t hire you to proof and edit my work, and so you shouldn't be doing it. It's not your job to reward or punish people based on their grammatical skills.

Yet some people think it is.


 
The highlighted comment adds nothing to the conversation. Who cares about the correct use of the word? We understand, even if the comment would have had pedantic.

Which actually would have been the perfect word for Annie to confront.

If all you can do is find errors and miss out on comprehending the main point, I feel sorry for you. Such a small mind, desiring to be smaller.

Comments

  1. The shirt-ad typo from the book about Julie gave me a most welcome laugh this morning. The coffee blown backwards into my nose was less enjoyable, but that's on me.

    I'm not likely, I fear, to read that book -- I'm pretty well backlogged. Did everything work out okay for Julie and her dad?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The story is about a dam breaking and the death and destruction in the town. So the typo was soon forgotten. Julie didn't die, but I think someone in her family did.

      Delete

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