I saw a video based on an essay by Stephen Fry about how he loathes language pedants (that’s fancy British talk for Grammar Bullies), and it’s got me rethinking how I approach my own love of language and punctuation pet peeves.
First, let me say I’m not a fan of a 6:30 minute kinetic typography video (see it below); I’d rather just read the original, or hear the audio, not read at someone else’s out-loud pace. But that’s just me. Other than that, this was brilliant.
For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.
There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.
I’ve always been a stickler about language, but I try not to make an ass of myself about it. I make sure I use it correctly, but I don’t want to be a Grammar Bully. I don’t correct people out loud, although I’ve been known to mark up a sign or two. And I’ve, on occasion, sent my friend Doug Karr a private DM when he’s misspelled a word in a blog post.
My bigger crusade has been spent fighting the Grammar Bullies, those self-appointed vigilantes who snipe and gripe about every preposition-ending sentence, every split infinitive, and every other misguided grammar myth that they insist on perpetrating because they stopped learning about grammar after the 5th grade.
(Had they continued, they would know those myths have long been debunked, and that you can boldly split infinitives and end sentences with any prepositions you come up with.)
My Challenge to Grammar Bullies
So I’m changing my own personal rules about language usage. I’m not going to pick nits off other people’s language, unless they pick on someone else first. I’m not going to correct someone’s mistakes, unless they just need a guiding hand to send them in the right direction, rather than a bully’s smackdown.
To the Grammar Bullies, those people who still vomit out their 5th grade English rules like yesterdays’ lunch, you need to put up or shut up. Most of those rules are outdated or were incorrect in the first place.
If you’re a Grammar Bully who doesn’t actually do any real writing yourself, you’re a coward. An assassin who does his work with poisons, so he can be safely out of harm’s way, rather than the warrior, who wades into battle and earns his glory. You’re the theater critic who can’t act, the sports analyst who never played.
I think the new standard for Grammar Sticklers (that’s fancy American talk for “you’re being an A-hole”) should be that you need to be a Writer. You can’t just complain about grammar and language. You need to produce your own grammar and language for everyone to see.
Write, as Fry said, “poems, love-letters, novels and stories.” Put them out there for the whole world to see. Let the other people who are “too farting busy sneering and guarding the language” get a gander at your work.
But if you can’t produce, if you don’t have any skin in the game, then your “corrections” are hollow and pedantic (that’s fancy talk for “this is why no one likes you”), and should be ignored.
You’re not allowed to gripe. You’re not allowed to point out errors in other people’s writing. You may not complain about these things, because you haven’t earned the right. You haven’t done the work. You haven’t slung the ink. You haven’t sat down at a typewriter, opened a vein, and bled.
Because until you do, you don’t know the annoyance of a pesky piss-ant biting at your ankles, complaining about things they know nothing about.
So, you self-appointed grammar thugs and bullies, put your Sharpies down, pick up your notebooks and laptops, and let’s see what you can do. Until then, keep your pens and your pedantic rules in your pockets, and let the real writers get back to work.
(As for the rest of you: seriously, stop putting apostrophes in words to pluralize them. “DVD’s” and “car’s” is incorrect.)