Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Grammar Police make terrible writers: discuss

A post I happened across: 4 Reasons Freelance Writers Shouldn’t Be Grammar Police

This title made me pause. I’m too polite (usually) to be a card-carrying member of the Grammar Police, but I’m generally a Grammar Police Sympathizer, at least. And you know, I think I do okay as a writer. Let’s just see what those reasons are, shall we? I thought judgmentally.

Then I read the opening of the post. It starts like this:

The other day I received this email in response to a marketing message I sent out to my subscription list:

Basic grammar forbids the use of double negatives, “…using the wrong
set of skills for the wrong job”. An authority on writing must master
the rules of writing before they can be taken seriously.

I so wanted to let this guy know that “the wrong skills for the wrong job” is hardly a double negative, and that some of the greatest writers of all times used double negatives for emphasis — Shakespeare, anyone? …

This derailed my inclination to be immediately judgmental about the titular four reasons, since it made me smile. I thought, well, the author here, Linda Formichelli, sure missed a chance to respond to her critic. If I’d gotten that email, I would have been inclined to respond:

“Using the wrong skills for the wrong job” isn’t a double negative. A double negative is defined as blah blah blah; here is an example and a citation. I wonder if you meant to put that period outside the quote marks? That is not standard in America. Also, by the way, “An authority on writing” is singular, so you probably shouldn’t have used the plural pronoun “they” in the following clause.”

Then I would have chalked this one up as another example of the basic truism that if you’re going to criticize someone else’s grammar or punctuation, you better proofread your criticism very, very, VERY carefully before you hit “send.”

But sure, now that that’s out of the way, what ARE those four reasons?

1.Ah ha, yes, first on the list: the one about Grammar Police not being perfect.

Well, I disagree. I mean, sure, Grammar Police don’t produce error-free writing. We just produce ALMOST error-free writing, except when we toss errors into dialogue for effect or something like that.

The person who wrote that email with those errors in it is not actually a member of the true Grammar Police, or so I would assert. That person is a mere wannabe, a poser who aspires to true Grammar Police status.

Let’s take a look at Reason Two:

2. Grammar Police waste time worrying about other people’s writing, when they ought to be writing.

Nonsense. Grammar policing is not a career. It’s merely a vocation. A proper member of the Grammar Police is quite able to proffer a quick comment about the correct use of apostrophes just in passing, without a significant loss of time. 

If we want to take even less time than that to police other people’s errors, we can just invest in a t-shirt that says “Silently Correcting Your Grammar,” such as the one at this link. While I don’t have that t-shirt, I should absolutely get one like that.

Next:

3. Grammar Police have bad attitudes.

No, no, that’s the wannabes. True members of the GP have excellent attitudes, though plenty of practice in rolling our eyes. 

Of course, that depends on your definition of GP. The author of this post says:

I think the term “Grammar Police” refers specifically to people who berate you for your grammar errors — all out of proportion to the severity of said errors. Those who tell you your writing won’t be taken seriously with typos, or who paint a picture of you as a frazzled writer who can’t cope with life.

People who berate you for anything are generally being seriously rude, whether or not their response seems to be out of proportion to the severity of your error. Perhaps I should add here that I almost never actually correct anybody unless (a) they’re in an English Comp class and it would be nice if they learned to recognize as nonstandard a particular usage that’s common in this county, such as “They have went …”; or (b) they’re preparing to take a standardized test, so ditto; or (c) something else that makes it reasonable to offer correction. And I’m never snarky about it.

Well, almost never.

Next:

4. Grammar Police have trouble writing.

It’s perfectly true that anybody determined to make every sentence grammatically perfect is probably not going to be able to write good fiction. 

But you know, you can’t break rules effectively until you’re able to follow the rules. You have to know what effect that comma splice is going to have, or whatever, before you can put it in and actually have it work. Writers with a deep feel for language are always going to write better sentences much more consistently than writers who lack that feel — even though some of their sentences will not be technically correct.

This sort of thing always reminds me, these days, of a writer pointing out that in Great Expectations, Charles Dickens suddenly switches to writing a series of fragments when he introduces Magwitch. Sorry, I don’t remember where that was, so I can’t credit the person who pointed that out.

Grammar Police in the less-strict sense of people who know correct grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards, use it by feel, wince when someone says “Aren’t all these baby’s cute!” on Facebook, and occasionally, when appropriate, correct someone’s misunderstanding … those are the people who also know when to use a series of fragments to stop the action and show the reader a scene.

Ever since noticing that CJ Cherry sometimes uses a semi-colon in front of a conjunction, I’ve felt free to stet that kind of thing myself. No, I think as I zap the copy editor’s correction.  I actually do want a little bit more of a pause right here, and I don’t care that it’s not technically perfectly correct. I put that semi-colon there by feel, but I leave it there because a closer analysis confirms to me that my feeling was right.

Well, anyway, it’s an amusing post. Who knows, maybe the author’s definition of Grammar Police is actually standard. What do you all think? 

Grammar Police = rude, and frequently not as knowledgeable as they think.

Grammar Police = knowledgeable, but generally polite, if sometimes a bit snarky.

 

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5 Comments Grammar Police make terrible writers: discuss

  1. Mar

    Also, knowing the grammar means you don’t tell someone a sentence is run-on when it could be used for a coatrack if diagrammed, or in the passive voice merely because it depicts a moment when not much happens.

  2. Irina

    Not to disagree with the gist of what you’re saying, but I think singular they in that quote (applied to “An authority on writing”) is absolutely correct. If we don’t know who exactly this authority on writing is “he or she” is clunky and possibly inaccurate.

  3. Mary Catelli

    “That’s a double negative” is a new one on me.

    Faux Grammar Police are much more likely, in my experience, to think something is in passive voice because not much is happening, or a sentence is run-on because it’s long.

    Mastering grammar really does help you look less like an idiot when criticizing other people.

  4. Rachel

    Yes, it’s remarkable how many people think a sentence is passive voice if it has “was” in it, too. For that matter, it’s shocking how many people think there’s something wrong with the passive voice, which is perfectly appropriate if the subject is unknown or if you want for any reason to deemphasize the subject.

    Irina, sure, but if someone were to send me an email criticizing my grammar or punctuation, I would nail absolutely everything questionable in their email. You see how I use “their” in the prior sentence? I don’t object to the singular “they” when it works. Though I wouldn’t do that in an email to an English teacher; I would hesitate to use a singular “they” in high fantasy; and I would never put a singular “they” in the mouth of a formal character.

    Thanks for the link, Pete! Great article.

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