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Siobhan Curious

Siobhan Curious
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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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Siobhan Curious teaches English literature at a CEGEP in Montreal.

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DECEMBER 5, 2011 8:23AM

Unfriendly Grammar

Rate: 4 Flag

The other day, I received a letter from a reader who is having an extreme emotional response to others' bad grammar.  What should she do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan,

Would you consider writing a post on the issues of being an English teacher and social media user?

When I read status updates on Facebook and other social media sites, I actually want to unfriend people who make consistent grammatical errors. If anyone posts on my wall and uses "lol" or "its" instead of "it's" (or worse, "it's" instead of "its") I have the great urge to delete the friend and the message. Is there something wrong with me?

Sometimes I want to write to friends and correct them but I know that I'd look like a pedantic twit if I did. I don't mind the odd typo, but I get scared when it seems as though friends of mine don't know how to write in English.

Remember in 1984, when they had Newspeak and they trimmed down the language? That could happen to our language! It's losing its meaning.

It could be argued that if you can't articulate a thought you are not having the thought. I don't want our language to be reduced to lols.  I've only unfriended one person so far, but I've unsubscribed from many...I know that many great writers invented words, and that our language is always changing. I'm all for developments and new ways of expression, but I fear the sloppy use of language and shrinking meanings.

What should I do?  It's really making me crazy.

Yours, S.

I've written a response, but haven't yet sent it to S - I will publish it on Thursday.  In the meantime, I'd like to know your thoughts.  Have  you ever had a similar urge?  Is bad grammar reason enough to unfriend someone in the social media world?  Let us know what you think.

Image by miamiamia

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I don't much care about other's bad grammar, although I notice it. My kids are seriously spelling challenged and so I'm used to it. My view if someone doesn't want to read the stuff a "friend" posts, go on and unfriend them, but you will probably upset them.

What I have a problem with is when someone uses bad grammar and my kids copy it. For example, someone says "You did good" (using adjectives in place of adverbs is a particular peeve of mine). Okay, if it isn't my kid, I don't really care. But then when my kid replies, 'Yes, I did good," it's awkward to correct them, since it's obvious that the original speaker spoke incorrectly.
oh crap! I meant to put a question mark on the end of that. To leave it, you know, ambiguous.
Malusinka:
See, here's the thing. I say "You did good" all the time. I know it's "incorrect," but I also like the folksy, warm sound of it. On the other hand, if someone says "If I would have known," I cringe. A commenter on my WordPress blog noted that the problem with being a "grammar snoot" is that everyone is snooty about different things, but thinks their version of snoot is the one that should be upheld. That said, when it comes to one's kids, one has to be vigilant!
OMG. I know what you mean because I absolutely cringe to see how poorly some of my former students write. One is a doctoral student who still writes "alot" even though I had it on a list of "bad words" on a bulletin board all year with a red circle and slash through it. She spelled cemetery with an "a" on a recent post. This woman will be teaching at a university someday soon. How about the nurse who shows up at my seriously ill husband's room--the one who could never remember to put a period at the end of a sentence? Oy. Your niece is right--it's Newspeak.
Miguela: My niece? Oh, I see. No, "Auntie Siobhan" is my advice maven name - this reader is no relation.
grammar is important, but sometimes it can also be utilized as a tool of class-oppression and exploitation
RW: do you think that is what this writer is doing?
Oy Vey indeed.
Just one more comment and I swear I will shut up. My absolute best nursing instructor spelled tomorrow tommorrow. Repeatedly, not just as a typo. She was the kindest, most knowledgeable teacher I had out of that school, and I learned the most from her.
Sometimes it truly is about what is being communicated, and not about style.
and just in case it's unclear- we all got there on the right day amazingly enough, even though she spelled it wrong.

I'm not saying don't correct your students, that's your job. Your nurses though, you might want to give us some slack...your friends too, for that matter. We all have different skills.
grammar is not the issue here.
grammar is out the damn window, and good riddance.
i think we should focus more on morphology,
intonations & context.

the context is usually informal.
people are in a hurry, but AT LEAST THEY ARE WRITING
SOMETHING. in days of old, the illiterate masses
were wandering around untethered to
the written language, but always REINVENTING it,
which is what Languages do, dammit: evolve.
we need a new shakespeare to sew everything up
in a mighty new English Vernacular
that contains all colors of the rainbow,
skinwise.

the vernacular is to be modified so as to make
the politicans and demagogues
stranded in formal english.
easy to spot.
it is like
a kind
of
word
revolution, or something.
HJ:
Some of the most intelligent people I know are dyslexic, or just terrible spellers. And that's just taking intelligence as the criterion for friendship - there are obviously many others.
JME:
"people are in a hurry, but AT LEAST THEY ARE WRITING
SOMETHING." I will have to think about whether I believe this is necessarily a good thing. My daily jaunts around the internet often convince me that some people should not be writing things, and grammar has nothing to do with it.
I think that if you study the history of Latin, and how it morphed into French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Spanish and Portuguese, you see that this was primarily a bottom-up movement, led by the common people who were pronouncing and articulating words, not to mention creating new grammatical rules in a way that contravened the Established rules of spoken and written Latin grammar as imposed from above by their Roman overlords.

The same thing happens whenever languages change. The changes come from the bottom-up. The elite tries to maintain control by imposing standards, established by the Aristocracy. Many of these rules are often byzantine, complex and weird, and serve the purpose of making education, literacy, etc... very difficult for poor people to attain, and as such, enable the Aristocracy to use said attainments as markers of "class position" in said society.

China is undergoing a similar situation right now. The classical Chinese character system is maintained in Taiwan, due to the fact that the KMT, the party of the nobles, fled there. The PRC is trying to simplify the language and writing system, for better compatibility with computers and such, in the 21st century.

Its not "bastardization," but evolution and one can still have a mathematically precise language, albeit under a different and more simplified rule set.

Just look at the evolution of computer languages in our own lifetime.
Re: Malusinka: There is a strong class component to what you say.

Many upper middle class and wealthy folks from certain regions of the US say "You did well," whereas working class and middle class folks say "You did good."

I think the rules are silly in a case like this, if the meaning gets through.
RW:
Agreed. On the other side, those on the "bottom" often aspire to further their own interests by learning and applying rules that will mark them as "educated." Those of us who teach are ethically bound to give them the tools to do so.
Because its clear that the common folks are changing the definition of what "good" should be. It is now many different things.

Language is ARBITRARY. And as such, is flexible. What matters is if it maintains its essential utilitarian value, and serves in a convention function, a marker that all others can point to and simultaneously understand for said utilitarian purposes.

For example, if I say dog, and you think cat, the purpose of language is lost.

But if we get into an argument over whether X should be called Alsatian or German Shepherd, its silly, because they are essentially the same thing.
Siobhan: Agreed. That said, what will happen over the course of time, is the evolution of a vulgar, common language among the people, and the maintenance of an educated language among the learned.

Sort of like in France, in the 1400s, where the common people started to speak something called "french" (a combination of Latin plus Frankish/Germanic stuff and vulgar volksy idiomatic phrases thrown in, plus some celtic/Gallic stuff, too) but the nobility still spoke a refined version called Latin.
RW:

I don't agree. Grammar is about role words play in a sentence. In many cases, such as 'Me speak bad,' the meaning is clear. However, there are plenty of instances when you need the help of grammar to aid in understanding the meaning. For example, while 'I did good' is generally understood, 'I write good,' could easily mean 'I am writing the word good,' and if the speaker is a chatty 5 year old with a pencil in hand, it might well be what she means. When the verb 'write' is modified by an adverb 'well,' there is no confusion.

The issue is that you often don't need the assistance of proper grammar to understand simple sentences and ideas. Where it becomes important is to convey complex ideas with clarity.

When we say grammar is not important and merely a function of class and we don't teach it to kids, then the people who don't learn good grammar have a mild handicap in expressing complex ideas well.

And God knows, enough bureaucrats and Gov't regulators need help producing clearly understood English, without our saying the rules of grammar can be randomly violated.

With a few exceptions (good/well perhaps being one) proper grammar is easier than incorrect grammar. To take another of my pet peeves, 'Between you and I,' here the I is in subjective case, however, the phrase, 'Between us,' uses objective case ('between we' would be subjective case) so the usage 'between you and I' becomes an exception to the general rule that 'between' takes objective case.

We have an innate capacity for grammar and keeping English grammar simple and understood will make it easier for people to communicate.

The solution to class based prejudice is to teach proper grammar in school. I wasn't taught much grammar and I was struck by the extent to which in the 60s and 70s, they decided it was racist to say proper English was better than Black English and so no one taught grammar. Then so many tests: SATs, GMATs, the Foreign Service exam had a section on English usage, easy for me, but on which African Americans did dismally, so they tended to lower the pass rate for African-Americans. A system of astounding stupidity and probably pretty crushing to the esteem of many African-American students.
I will, and have, unfriended someone for consistently failing to use capitals; more so if they also fail to use punctuation. This tells the reader; no, it bellows to the reader, that the writer has absolutely no respect for them al all and arrogantly thinks that you "must" read his scribblings no matter how he presents them.

I don't. I won't.
.
My friends are my friends, regardless of their spelling and grammar abilities. Why would I stop being friends with someone just because they are not perfect? I certainly have my flaws and hope that my friends would overlook them. What if your friends un-friended you just because you're judgmental, regardless of your many positive qualities.

That said, I am way more tolerant with errors on ephemeral writings such as Twitter, Facebook and text messages than I am on more permanent documents such as books or contracts. As long as I don't have to work hard at understanding something very important just because the grammar and spelling are so poor, I just deal with it and go on with my life, and silently thank my lucky stars that I know the difference.