grammar evolution

RIP Grammar Police: Now Optional Common Usage

I sometimes see posts and articles in the writing/reading blogging community written by the grammar police about how fiction standards have gone down and publishers and authors aren’t sticking to the old rules as much as they should. And this includes large publishers, not just small. I also notice these pieces are often written by those of the quasi academic community and I’ve always tended to agree with something I read by Rita Mae Brown who also happens to be a professor. Paraphrased it goes something like this: “Too much education has ruined more writers than booze.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do care about grammar and I do care about how sentences flow as they were meant to flow. But when I see something that works because it has evolved as common usage and it’s not grammatically perfect, I’m not going to close a book and complain about it. Or slam the author and publisher with a scathing review. In fact, some of the most boring books I’ve read in my life have had perfect grammar, they didn’t follow common usage, and they put me to sleep.

What the authors of these critical pieces also fail to mention is that most authors take into consideration the fact that communication/grammar evolves according to common usage over time. To give a very basic example without going into too much detail, think ending a sentence with a preposition. I recall an article I read a long time ago about how Princeton University began to embrace the concept of ending sentences with prepositions. I can’t recall where I read that, but it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that fifty years ago a writer most likely wouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition and now we see it all the time. If you look it up, it’s okay to do it. There’s even an entertaining story floating around where Winston Churchill ended a sentence with a preposition (way before it became common usage), someone called him on it, and he replied with a witty comeback that put the grammar police of his day right where they belong.

Once again, I’m not saying we should ignore grammar or that grammar doesn’t matter. But a good deal of what I’ve seen these members of the grammar police complain about is questionable…and often petty. And that’s because many authors write the way real people speak these days: common usage. And when things that aren’t always grammatically correct begin to take hold with the masses, more often than not it’s a good example of how grammar and communication evolve over time. And what was once grammatically incorrect then becomes acceptable as common usage.

I have my own little complaints when I’m reading fiction, but I’ve learned to temper them by evaluating the story. And for me, if the story outweighs a few grammatical issues that aren’t offensive I don’t complain. I also think the best authors out there do tend to write the way people speak. It’s simple to follow and it moves at a faster pace. One thing is for certain, the articles I read by the grammar police are usually so convoluted and the writing is so poor in the articles themselves (even though the grammar is correct) it’s often hard to finish one.

So take what you read from the grammar police weigh it against common usage. From what I’ve seen, most of the grammar police types are amateurs. If you have a good copy editor the serious grammar issues will be caught before a book goes to publication (reason why it’s so important to have a good copy editor). As I said, communication evolves, and so does grammar and language. It’s a topic that can get extremely complicated with regard to semantics and semiotics, but most people don’t need to know about things like that in order to read a good story. And I would imagine most readers are more interested in the story than the prepositions.

Here’s one article that goes deeper into some of what I’ve just mentioned. This is an excellent web site for applying the concept, and understanding what it truly means.

What is language? We will use the word language broadly to mean any system of communication; any system for transferring information from one party to another. This would include “body language” and mathematics, not simply the customary notion of speech or writing. Likewise, we won’t restrict the idea of communication only to humans; there are many examples of communication among animals, and also between humans and objects such as clocks or computers.

I’m finishing up the next book in the Bad Boy Billionaire series right now and a good deal of the language I’m using deals with computers because the main character is a bad boy billionaire from Silicon Valley. I think most of my readers will be familiar with this common usage, and those who aren’t will still be able to figure it out within the context of each scene. But more important, I didn’t do it by accident.

Here’s another interesting article from the LA Times titled, “Grammar Rules vs. Evolving Usage.” 

However, the language is evolving. And those hard and fast rules that were taught in school sometimes become a little squishy.

I couldn’t have said it better, and if you read the article in full, you’ll see what they are talking about. This one is very basic, and questions many of the issues the grammar police discuss.

This article was written by a grammarian.

But I’ve started to wonder where to draw the line between bad grammar and evolving grammar. The instant publication that the Internet provides (and the almost immediate responsiveness that results) means that most people adopt a more informal, conversational style online. We’re generally less strict about spoken grammar than we are about written grammar, and perhaps online conversations represent a convergence of the two.

I could link ten more times on this topic. But I think I’ve made my point. And while this is subjective and no one is forcing anyone to do anything, I wanted to put something together to show that what we often read by the grammar police isn’t always set in proverbial stone. The last article to which I linked is probably the best example of this because it was written by an expert, not an amateur blogger who thinks she knows it all. And no one knows it all.