Back in my early high school years, I was a particular sort of nuisance: I corrected other people’s grammar. Fortunately, the long march into adulthood has done its share dulling the more abrasive parts of my younger personality. By around my early college years, I had come to grips with the fact it doesn’t matter if people use the correct verb tense in casual conversation. In pursuit of an English major, I further realized that prescriptivism (i.e., the belief that there is one correct and proper use of language) is pretentious, performative and often racist (depending on whose language you’re policing when). I prefer a world where language is an ever changing creature of nuance.
Adulthood can be a funny thing, however. I have now spent over two years of my life working at a newspaper, and this profession finds me in a position where I regularly have to critique the grammar of others and myself. That isn’t to say I’ve fallen back to my prescriptivist ways; I just recognize that there is a style guide defining what my professional standard of “correct” language should be. It can be a difficult line to walk though, and I feel it sometimes draws me back to bad habits.
Most rules of grammar seem to me to fall on a scale of pedantry, dictating how obnoxious you seem when you correct someone on them. Subject-verb agreement is a fairly natural part of our language and should probably at least be held to as the professional standard. But if you’re complaining about a sentence ending in a preposition, you’re really just spoiling the mood of someone else’s day. No meaning is lost in the process, and it’s writ and large how most people actually talk in their day-to-day lives. It’s a losing battle, if that’s what you are set on fighting.
And obsessing over grammar misses the point of effective writing, for that matter. Many of the more irksome errors I encounter proofing have nothing to do with grammar, but are issues of syntax and style. Passive voice. Clunky run-ons of strung together clauses. Pronouns with ambiguous antecedents. Being verbs languishing were stronger action would be better served. I doubt there’s any sort of silver bullet to writing effectively, but a good first step is moving beyond the milieu of chalkboard rules and asking yourself how you can best communicate the meaning of your words. And you certainly don’t prove anything by beating someone else over the head with the rulebook.
I’m not certain that having a style guide helps all that much at the end of the day, either. There are many parts of Associated Press style, the newspaper standard, that I find loathsome. My guiding principle when it comes to rules of grammar is that they should, above all, serve a purpose. The Oxford comma, which precedes the final “and” in a list or series, serves a definite purpose, defining the penultimate item in the series. Any style guide that stands against the Oxford comma is, dare I say it, my mortal enemy. And I won’t compromise on this.
Another grammar battlefield where I refuse to yield is use of the pronoun “they.” I know some people like to make a fuss about its use as a singular pronoun, rather than a plural. Personally, I think English is sorely lacking when it comes to a genderless third-person pronoun, and most people naturally use “they” in that context anyhow. I have more than a few friends who don’t define themselves in terms of the gender binary. “They” is what they go by, and I happily oblige. It was a small change to make to my internal grammar index. More than doing grammar for its own sake, I think we should let it change and adapt to fit the lives of people using it.
And grammar and language do change. There’s nothing we can do to prevent that. As much as prescriptivists would like to pin a correct answer down and preserve it into posterity, I don’t think that effort factors into real ways people communicate. And what is language anyway, if not the medium of communication.
Evan Orbeck is a Messenger staff writer.