Like my brother Paul (author of this article on the many ways people mis-use words), I have long considered myself a grammarian. I thought people who didn’t follow the sacred rules of the English language to be simple, crude and, most of all, annoying. I would cringe when Jon Stewart would say something like, “Look at the amount of people at this rally.” I’d make a mental note of every time someone said “that” when they meant “who.” And I once excommunicated a very busty, but simpleminded young lady just because of a raft of texts that read, “Your hilarious! :) :) :)”
But I think my grammar-Nazi ways are about to change.
My shift in thinking began a few days ago when I engaged in a Twitter argument with another FlipCollective writer, Mick Shaffer. The debate began after the following grammar-fueled tweet, sent by then-still-grammarian @mattshirley41:
“Hey America, 9/10 times you use the word ‘amount’ you should be using ‘number.’ It’s really bothersome to those of us who know English.”
Mick replied that, while the tweet was both hilarious and created by a handsome person, it would be more impactful if I had included the requisite comma after the word “Hey.”
@mickshaffer Hey Assbag, no there shouldn’t. You don’t pause after ‘Hey.’
But Mick wouldn’t relent. He was sure that one must always use a comma after a greeting. Bolstering his confidence was actual “research” he’d done to back his claim. Finally, after several more backs-and-forths – one of which included a clever pun and the word “alabaster” – I had to admit that he was right. Technically.
In correcting me, Mick made me realize something important: As users of the English language, we often abide by the rules of ‘proper grammar.’ Rules that make you use commas after greetings when no normal person would ever really pause there.
But there’s no such thing as proper grammar.
The next step in the further deterioration of my grammar-Goebbels status began when I finished reading “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue – An Untold History of English” by John McWhorter.
First off, nice name John.
Second, while Mr. McWhorter’s book is mostly filled with uninteresting garbage, it did teach me one thing: Languages are always changing. And as the languages change, so do the rules and the definitions of the properness and improperness of its grammar.
As it turns out, English is relatively simple. We don’t have feminine and masculine nouns or accent marks like Spanish and French. And while we do have lots of irregular verbs, we don’t have crazy verb conjugations for every tense.
You all eat
To learn how to describe the consumption of food in English, you have to master two conjugations: eat and eats. Not so difficult. Whereas, in Spanish, there are six different ways to conjugate ‘to eat’. And those conjugations change for other verbs, depending on the word’s ending: –AR, -ER, or –IR. Additionally, while English gets simpler in the past tense, Spanish gets even more complicated.
But English wasn’t always this easy.
Old English (or Olde English, if you prefer) had both feminine and masculine nouns, accent marks, and complex verb conjugations. What happened to all of these intricacies? The Vikings. These horn-hat-wearing folk raped and pillaged their way not only through mainland Britain, but also through the English language.
It was one of those rare rapes with positive outcomes.
The Vikings made English easier. According to Mr. McWhorter, as the brutish Scandinavians learned English, they applied many of their native Old Norse grammar rules and simplified the language to fit their needs. After a few generations, these simplifications began to catch on.
I tell you that so that I can tell you this: Languages exist so we can communicate with each other. Words’ meaning, not their arrangement, is king. Even as they butchered English grammar like they butchered pale-faced Saxons, Vikings were still able to communicate with one another. Rules (especially ones with useless commas) be damned.
We continue to see the death of many grammatical rules today. In the not-too-distant past, it was very bad form to end a sentence in a preposition. Now it’s just slightly bad form; while we still teach our youngsters not to hang their prepositions, few of us adhere to the rule when we speak. Or even, for that matter, when we write (which, historically, is the more formal medium of communication). “Who did you perform the Rusty Trombone on?” we ask. Not, “On whom did you perform the Rusty Trombone?”
This transition, I’m sure, has been excruciating to the division of the grammar police that has been at its post for the last 20 years, just like the ignorance of modern English ‘rules’ once annoyed this author.
But who really cares?
The meaning of a sentence with an ‘improper’ hanged (hung?) preposition is identical to one with a ‘properly’ unhung structure. And while the meaning is unchanged, our language, on the other hand, is changing all the time. Just like the Vikings changed Old English to Middle English, perhaps today’s morons are changing Modern English into another form, one that is even simpler and more user-friendly.
It should be noted of course, that rules are helpful. To those of us with some grasp of the English language, it’s incredibly disruptive when grammar rules are not followed. When Jon Stewart misuses the word ‘amount’ for example, I immediately stop listening to whatever it is he is saying. Meaning is lost. And other inter-language adaptations would be very detrimental to meaning—we wouldn’t want all of our Spanish-speaking immigrants to transfer their adjective positioning rules to English and utter sentences like, “That girl slutty is a bitch dumb.” While such a sentence would be hilarious, communication would be damned near impossible if each speaker, writer, and reader followed their* own set of language rules.
As English continues to evolve, it’s important to fight for the rules that impact meaning and, like a patient mother watching her children try to make pancakes for the first time, let the others be.
Because if their going to keep making this amount of mistakes, your just going to have to live with them.
*This should technically be his or her. Another good example of a rule ignored for good reason.