Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What do you think of grammar police?

I've come across plenty of people who hate them, but not many who love them. In fact, I don't think I've ever encountered one. So why do these helpful people get such a bad rap?

When I was a young teenager, I remember my mother ticking me off because she had lipstick on her teeth out in public and I failed to tell her until we got home. 'You've got to let someone know if they're not aware of something which could be potentially embarrassing!' Those weren't her exact words, but I got the message loud and clear.

I've sometimes been tapped on the shoulder by strangers who want to tuck the tag of my shirt down where it can't be seen. The only logical response is to thank them. And we've all heard about ladies who leave public toilets with their skirts accidentally tucked into their knickers or stockings. Not letting them know would be just plain mean. So why doesn't the gratitude extend to grammar police? If somebody writes, 'Your a special person', wouldn't they want to know that they ought to change it to you're before sending it to the recipient or splashing it across social media for the world to see? For some reason, this circumstance seems to elicit annoyance rather than thanks.

Last week, I heard the host of a radio talkback show venting about grammar police. 'Just because I spelled a word wrong and didn't use an apostrophe properly doesn't mean I'm a bad person! They should just mind their business!' It seems well-meaning correction may come across as patronising, as if the grammar policeman is putting himself above the other person. If the tag on your jumper is poking up, that signifies a simple accident, while correcting someone's grammar could be construed as calling their intelligence or knowledge into question. Still, do you think it surprising that so many people would rather cruise along in ignorance, just to avoid a moment of losing face? If you have the opportunity to not look like an idiot in front of hundreds of people instead of just one, why not accept it with gratitude?

Sadly, we live in an era when many people don't seem to think badly written expression is anything to be ashamed of. I came across an article I found a bit foolish, advising us to correct someone's grammar only if they want to be corrected. The question that sprang to mind was, 'How do you know whether they want you to or not, unless you mention it to them? By then, if they don't want to be corrected, the damage has already been done.' Considering the usual resentful feelings directed at grammar police, it might be safe to assume that most people never want to be corrected. I can think of only one exception. My son asks me to proofread his Uni essays before submitting them. Maybe that's the only circumstance in which joining the grammar police is regarded as socially acceptable. So if you tend to notice written mistakes, I think the general feeling is that our social etiquette in not mentioning it should override their ignorance in making them. That seems sad and wrong to me, but there you have it.

Once, my perspective was set spinning. I made a comment on a mutual friend's Facebook post, not noticing that I was using my teenage daughter's profile instead of mine. When she found out, she got exasperated. 'Mum, can't you just look? I've got to delete your comment, right now. They'll think it was me.'

'You don't have to panic. It won't matter that much, because I just said a general congratulations and well done. Nothing you wouldn't have said to them yourself.'

'Yeah, but you use proper English and everything. It would be embarrassing coming from me.'

 Okay, so if poor grammar and expression has become a sign of coolness, that changes things. If our kids want to be admired for following their crowd of text-talkers, then we are the foolish ones, if we try to make them change, See you tomz, have a gr8 nite, to See you tomorrow, and have a great night. This type of rebelling from established rules isn't even modern. In Randolph Stow's novel, Midnite, about a young bushranger, the hero's astute sidekick advised him to write his name as Captain Midnite, making sure to spell it wrong, because he wants to come across as original and romantic, 'and there's nothing romantic about good spelling.' Far be it from grammar or spelling police to force others to fit the mold at times like this.

However, I still think these exceptions differ from most general occasions, when a person intends to write the correct form, but totally misses it. If you're like me, and somebody writes, Remember, your ment too bring afternoon tea, witch they want you to leave by the door so there Dad can pick it up, our proper response is to just turn a blind eye to their mistakes, and send back a smiley face as if we haven't cringed at all.

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