Grammar Bullies and Their Justifications

Stephen Fry - Grammar BulliesThe following video by Matthew Rogers and Stephen Fry rather sums up my approach to writing and grammar. It reminded me of a time long ago when I allowed my father to read the first five chapters of my first novel. He gave it to his girlfriend who considered herself quite erudite. She also hated me for reasons that were never really clear to me.

While having dinner with them one time, I was shocked to learn that she had read the chapters. This was not acceptable to me because I am very cautious about who I allow to read my fiction. Be that as it may, I was eager to find out what she had thought. But she did not think anything of the story. She was focused on the grammar errors that she had found. I say “errors” but the truth was that she was only able to find one thing that was sort of an error: a sentence fragment.

Given that it was some 20,000 words and a draft that had never been copy edited, I thought that was pretty good. But she held onto her criticisms with a barely disguised glee as though somehow she had vanquished me. I got the impression that in her mind she had proved that I was no writer as if all of my writing in various forms over the previous 20 years didn’t count. All that counted was that a real writer never made a grammar error. Or something. There really was something wrong with that woman.

Clear Communication

Regardless, one part of this video that I really like is where Fry says that grammar conservatives’ claims that they are just trying to keep communication clear never holds water. The issue actually is clarity. But the rigid application of grammar rules normally gets in the way of this. It doesn’t help that most people only know about this or that rule because they were told it at an impressionable age. I used to yield to these grammar bullies, until I realized that they generally understood relatively little about grammar and almost nothing about communicating.

The Sad State of “Importantly”

Many years ago, I stopped using the word “importantly” altogether. I got tired of people complaining about sentences like, “And most importantly, the blah blah blah.” The argument is that it should be “important.” But that’s not true. For one thing, if that is what one wanted to say, it would be, “And most important the blah blah blah.” There would be no comma. The original construct is a shortened version of, “And in the most important way, the blah blah blah.” The second construct just isn’t very natural; it sounds like someone writing for Kung Fu, “And most important father led the family out of danger.”

I’ve thought about bringing “importantly” back into my writing. Unfortunately, I’ve also come to dislike adding “ly” to words to make them adverbs. I would like to see a lot less of that. But it is a personal, aesthetic thing; not grammar dogma originating in Mrs Johnston’s 7th grade English class.

Fun With Grammar

None of this means that I don’t delight in funny or interesting errors. I love things like, “Beat red.” They are charming. Hell, they’re poetry. And I can appreciate constructs like, “The dog caught the Frisbee as it flew through the air.” But it is exactly that kind of ambiguity that writers normally try to avoid. It isn’t wrong; it is just unclear. And in the end, clarity is the only thing that matters in writing. All is clarity.

Grammar is not a weapon.


At the very end, Fry mentions how it bugs him when people aspirate the letter “h.” I’m not sure what he’s talking about because it fades out. But I have an issue with this. It is fine if you want to say “a historian” or “an historian.” But if you aspirate the “h” then it is “a historian.” If you are going to use “an” you don’t aspirate the “h.” To do so is pretentious in the extreme.

2 thoughts on “Grammar Bullies and Their Justifications

  1. Congratulations for realizing early on that those who intentionally demean and dismiss others are rotten, rotten people. (Perhaps deserving of sympathy, in their own way, since Lord only knows who made them that way, but rotten nonetheless.) It took me a long time to stop internalizing the petty criticisms and cruel barbs of nasty people and just start being mad that they’re probably doing the same thing to others.

    Fry (may he live forever, or be cloned) is expressing here something I really, really enjoyed while finishing up my degree (20 years late) at a local community college. Writing is easy for me (although quality writing is not; and so innocent recipients of my rants suffer needlessly.) What I found most rewarding was supporting people for whom English is not a first language. Their grammar and tenses would be unclear — so I would always respond to posts by international students, trying to show how their writing could be interpreted in different ways.

    That sounds like SuperJerk, but I pulled it off by never criticizing WHAT they might have been saying, only how their use of English made their meaning foggy. I had a lot of students thank me for this, and I always told them that if they practiced more — writing for classes, to friends, anyhow and anywhere, they would get better at it. Hell, when I was their age, I couldn’t express a coherent notion at all, and I grew up speaking this screwy tongue. To make some possible meanings clear is better than I could do then.

    It’s one of my beefs with modern social media. I have a young relative who hates the way he writes, even though I find it perfectly fine. Yet "likes" are the way he judges his writing, in little half-sentence segments on Facebook/Twitter and such. Minus the "likes," he doubts his ability when he really shouldn’t, really has an interesting perspective, and puts it well. I blame social media for that — and as much as I admired the spirit of the Occupy movement, their "people’s mike," repeating a few phrases at a time, struck me as antithetical to long-form discussion of complex questions. But I wasn’t there, so I can’t say.

    Incidentally, I found it amusing how some modern academics get annoyed when you use colloquial language to express your point of view. When EVERY academic paper in the humanities expresses a point of view. I got quite a bit of shit (and I didn’t care, I’m old) for being too casual in my word/sentence choices — often from instructors whose published work I’d read and which had definite opinionated stances. Academic language in the humanities is dull enough on the face of it to seem scientific and non-judgmental, which is, to me, pure bollocks. Like the way economics pretends it’s simply math . . .

  2. My favorite was a transit center in Beaverton with the sign, “busses only.” Which, the internet says, is a technically correct spelling, although a century out of date. I liked thinking of it as the kissing-only lane.

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