Wednesday, April 22, 2015

I DON"T Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar

But I might help you understand how to write it correctly if it seems important.

As a teacher, I've read a lot of poor grammar.  And, modeling my English teachers,  I started out pretty picky about it.  But eventually I learned about things like dyslexia and the arbitrary origins of our grammar rules*, and I got a lot mellower.  Mind you, I still think that good grammar and word choice improves people's ability to communicate.  And I still mark students' bad grammar.  But my comments are focused on their grammar, not on their moral character.   However, I would suggest to students that bad grammar in their writing was like a big spot on your shirt.  Some people will judge you on it. 

In the last two days, two readers have contacted me to point out spelling errors.  I don't have an editor, so errors slip through now and then and I appreciate the extra eyes.  They were alerting me, not judging me.  

Thus, I found this book title offensive.  OK, can you find something offensive without judging yourself?  A reasonable question.  I don't have to be judging the person to be offended.  I'm merely stating my reaction.  Shaming people, whether it's over their gender or their grammar, is still shaming.  It's hurtful.  And one has to wonder why someone feels the need to put other people down.  Rather than judging, I find my self wondering what kinds of personal issues Sharon Eliza Nichols has that she has to so publicly shame people who have problems with grammar? 

We all have different natural strengths and weaknesses.  Some people simply don't see letters and words that well.  Other people see them so well that it causes them distress when they're wrong.  That may be Nichols' stimulus for this book.

I've seen other books that offer examples of signs written in English by speakers of other languages - often non-English speakers trying to communicate with visitors who don't speak the local language.  But usually those books are written with an eye to the humor, not to shaming the creators.  They're written by people who know how hard it would be for them to write such signs in other languages.

 I don't know that I would be doing a post on this, if it hadn't been for the first picture inside the book. 

As I interpret this sign, it's not a typo, it's not a mistake, but rather a pun.  You might not like or get the pun, but I'd bet money that the owners of this store knew full well how to spell bistro.  What this suggests to me is that Nichols might not have a very good sense of humor.

Most of the examples in the book are like this one - problems with apostrophes or other spelling or grammar errors.  One could get picky and say a spelling error is not technically a grammar error.  People who harshly judge others get no mercy for their own failings.  

And here's another example.  For the life of me, I can't think of a word that fits here that someone could have incorrectly written as "penis.'  My guess is that it said something like "Fresh Cut Peonies" and some joker removed the 'o' and the 'e'.

Being judgmental has the problem of others scrutinizing what you do harder than they might have.  I'd suggest that Nichols lighten up.  Maybe these people wrote these various signs simply to help you write your book.  Or maybe to get your goat.  If this really bothers you so much - and the introduction to the pictures suggests it does, and that you really do look down on the writers - then you might consider where this need to judge comes from.  Anger tends to tell us more about the person who got angry than the objects of the anger.  Especially when the angry person doesn't even know the offender.

All that said, let me also say, yes, of course, there are times when anger is a legitimate reaction.  And yes, I could write a bunch of blog posts about the benefits of good grammar and spelling.  But I've got my weaknesses and I'm glad people don't look down on me for them, and I try to understand, rather than judge, others who don't live up to my expectations.  Starting with respect is generally the best way to help others improve anyway. 

*I converted on grammar precision when I read chapter 12, "The Language Mavens," in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. He wrote that English grammar became important in the eighteenth century when England became the center of a powerful empire and the London dialect became an important world language. 
"The period also saw unprecedented social mobility, and anyone who desired education and self-improvement and who wanted to distinguish himself as cultivated had to master the best version of English.  These trends created a demand for handbooks and style manuals, which were soon shaped by market forces.  Casting English grammar into the mold of Latin grammar made the books useful as a way of helping young students learn Latin.  And as the competition became cutthroat, the manuals tried to outdo one another by including greater numbers of increasingly fastidious rules that no refined person could afford to ignore.  Most of the hobgoblins of contemporary prescriptive grammar (don't split infinitives, don't end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads."
  Here's a more recent example of Pinker on the topic of questionable grammar rules.

NOTE:  8:15pm My apologies to people who've been here already.  Another Feedburner failure I'm hoping to remedy by reposting.  [8:24pm it worked]


  1. I think you're right, they're referring to peonies, which in the south are often pronounced "peenies"

    On the topic of grammar: I agree that some people may have reasons to commit bad grammar, such as dyslexia or ESL. God knows I commit awful grammar when I speak German. But way more people commit bad grammar because they have not paid attention in English class, or hang out with people who didn't pay attention in English class, or took English from teachers who didn't do a good job teaching either the rules or the importance of following them. And the ones that annoy me the most are those who know the proper grammar but don't think it's important enough to read over their own work before they hit the send button -- you're just my friend or my prospective employer, why do you deserve an extra minute of my precious time? I like your analogy of the spot on the shirt. But I guess in this day and age nobody cares too much about that either.

    I may not judge people as morally inferior because they use bad grammar, but I do notice it, and I often wonder why those who should know better are willing to wear a spotty shirt out in public.

  2. It was meant to say "pines" I bet. I knew the owner of a small rental apartment called "Twin Pines" and occasionally some joker switched the vowels on the big sign out front.

  3. I had somewhat of an epiphany a few years back while being introspective and critical of my own atrocious writing. I realized how much it can be equated with my art: I draw cartoons, which are predicated on the expression of concepts in the simplest form for the fasted transmission/easiest interpretation possible. Yes, there are degrees of relative effectiveness, and aesthetic issues with stylistic concerns and taste that factor in as well, but at the core is the question… does it work? The elites will always judge a cartoon as being of less value and importance than a piece of Fine Art, but - much like written letters + words – these marks made on a sheet of paper are simply meant to communicate. Some folks will never listen or look on account of how the speaker looks, or what they sound like, nomatter what they are saying.


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