You’re right grammar ain’t gonna impress literally no-one
No matter how you judge your own level of literacy, reading a sentence like the heading here is likely to cause your brain some discomfort. Words that are fine individually, now seem awkward and ugly sitting together. It’s as though your family, friends, and colleagues have all commented on your Facebook post – each is fine on their own, but you don’t want to see them together.
For most people, the effect from reading a sentence like this will just be a slight mental jarring, like hitting a small, unexpected speed bump in the road of reading. It will throw you off track momentarily, but it’s soon enough forgotten. Now and again, the discomfort may come to mind and nag at you. But mostly, well, meh. It’s fine.
It won’t be so fine for about 1 in 5 of the UK population – or about 3 in 10 of those reading this, being further segmented as ‘active blog readers'. For these people, it will be offensive. It will be an abomination of all they hold dear. It will be an insult and one they will take personally.
Being the author — literally — responsible for causing this offence, it is necessary that I must be judged by these people. And so, they will categorise me and assume my class and background.
They will hate me. They will pity me. They will want to shake sense into me. They won’t be able to look at me. They will have all these emotions wrapped up into one big bundle of…
These are the people who take grammar seriously. Who take grammar very seriously. For these people, there is no life or death, only present perfect and future progressive.
You might know of these people as Grammar Nazis, which the Urban Dictionary defines as:
a – A person who believes proper grammar (and spelling) should be used by everyone whenever possible.
b – One who attempts to persuade or force others to use proper grammar and spelling.
c – One who uses proper grammar and spelling to subtly mock or deride those who do not; an exhibitor of grammatical superiority
As metaphors go, being compared to Hitler’s Third Reich is a little on the harsh side. You would be surprised to hear someone use the term self-referentially, and it’s a pretty safe bet that there won’t be many shouts for the name to be reclaimed, like the queers or the right-wing have done.
So let’s call them Grammar Geniuses.
(Or Genii, as they may be wont to correct me).
The crimes against Genii
Let’s break down the main causes - or should that be clauses - of offence.
(No, it shouldn't.)
A homonym is a word that sounds like another word but has an entirely different meaning. In this example, the incorrectly used homonym is the contraction of you are, so we are defining you as being grammar. What we mean to do is assign ownership of grammar to you, so it requires the possessive form: your.
The Grammar Genius will refuse to give a homonym a home,
You could argue that neither are correct as there is no need for a possessive pronoun at all. After all, is grammar something that a person owns? Or is it a noun that merely requires the specification of a determiner, such as a or the?
The Grammar Genius would argue that correct would be more correct to describe something which is, correct. Something that is right is less absolute. Many things can be right. Being correct is the definitive state. Correct is proven and unarguable.
Using correct communicates a specificity of knowledge by the user. There is an air of middle-class confidence in its use. Even its phonetic construct creates a clipped English timbre to the word when it is spoken aloud.
An informally accepted contraction of going to. Similar contractions are wanna for want to and gotta for got to. For some reason, we don’t see hafta for have to.
This word squashing originates from forms of slurred speech, common in many dialects. Common is anathema to the Grammar Genius who just sees the user as lazy and vulgar.
Another contraction, but this time the short form of to not be. We use the same contraction for the first, second and third person so ain’t can mean am not, is not and are not.
Ain’t is a cause of much consternation for the Grammar Genius when used to replace the preferred alternatives – in this example, it would be isn’t – mainly because opening the word with two vowels is aesthetically displeasing.
It may surprise some to know that ain’t has been in common use since the 17th century – which is just as long as aren’t – and is included in all dictionaries. So, technically, there ain’t nothing ‘wrong’ with using the word.
And then we arrive at the headline issue within the issues of the headline. If everything else in this list of crimes could be likened to ill-judged offences, lesser misdemeanours, then this is my equivalent of committing Murder One.
You could say I have avoided what for many is literally the elephant in the room.
The misappropriation of literally – along with the potential it has for hilariously changing the meaning of a sentence – is something we’ve all seen many times. It’s something we’ve probably all done. In fact, considering how widely known it seems to be, it’s odd that we still see it as often as we do.
It’s a mistake that the Daily Tabloid use to highlight the stupidity of those in the public eye. They point, jeer, and mock in a manner that, tonally, is just a hair’s breadth away from bullying.
But pah, who cares about bullying when it makes us laugh?
Remember Nick Clegg?
“You see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax."
And Mr Smug’s response:
“Ha-ha. Did you hear what Cleggy said? Reckons we bank on Mars now. Stupid bloody politicians with their stupid ‘University education’. What a twat. Politicians don’t know nothing. Even my 10-year-old knows people don’t live in a different galaxy. Mind you, my 10-year-old would probably do a better job of running the country than him.”
Or Jamie Redknapp?
“In his youth, Michael Owen was literally a greyhound.”
Cue Mrs Smug:
“Ha-ha. Did you hear what Knappy said? Reckons we can be born as dogs, doesn’t he? Stupid bloody footballers with their stupid ‘School of Life education’. What a twat. Footballers don’t know nothing. Even my 10-year-old knows people aren’t born as dogs. Mind you, my 10-year-old would probably do a better job of winning the World Cup than him.”
And you can spend hours on YouTube watching comedy GOLD like this prime example:
Watching that YouTube clip – and there are thousands similar – it surprised me to find my allegiances shifting. I accept few would aspire to be like Mr Pizza Eater, whose death by ignorance seems to be a warning to us all of the folly of the stupid.
But if I had a choice of spending an evening with him eating pizza indoors, or an hour with the Smuggy McSmugSmug Twins doing a smug walk on one of their Smuggity Tours of Smugsville... I'd choose a slice of garlic bread and the odd grammatical error every time.
Pointing out the mistakes of others makes us feel superior. What else has been achieved other than the momentary gratification we feel as we release our grammatical wank? Have we helped anyone through their journey of life? Have we averted any possible misunderstanding and all its potential aftermath?
And before the Grammar Genius points out the change of meaning that an incorrect literally can create, remember we can only get those hilarious punchlines because we understand the speaker's intended meaning.
This next bit will literally make you die
The Grammar Genius would argue that we are right to protect the correct rules of language. After all, if we look up the word ‘literally’ in the dictionary, we will see that it can only ever mean precision and exact.
Google defines it as
in a literal manner or sense; exactly
But hold on, they add
(informal) used for emphasis while not being literally true. ”I was literally blown away by the response I got"
Well, what does Google know?
How about the more respected tome that is Merriam-Webster?
In effect, virtually, in an exaggerated way to emphasise a statement or description that is not literally true or possible
‘Not literally true?' *rubs eyes incredulously*
We should just go straight to the oracle, the bastion of the language, the Oxford English Dictionary:
Virtually, as good as. To indicate that some metaphorical or hyperbolic expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense. Used for emphasis rather than being actually true such as “we were literally killing ourselves laughing”.
The OED amended their definition in 2011. If that passed you by, you’re in the majority. It took two years for the Associated Press to pick it up, leading to brief comments in The Telegraph and Mail. Other than that, it was ignored. Which is fair enough. Even the most self-proclaimed Grammar Genius is far too busy to read a dictionary.
Still, the Grammar Genius may think, it’s not in all dictionaries. And the ones who have included it have probably done so with a begrudging acceptance. The Grammar Genius may brush it away with a tut towards a lazy modern society for changing what has always been correct.
So, let’s dig further back to see what has always 'been correct'.
What were they reading in the nineteenth century?
Here’s Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
“And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”
I’m not sure if they bathed differently back then?
Or Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
“his looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone.”
I’m no doctor, but I think that would make him a corpse. Literally.
These are far from being rare exceptions. Similar examples of such ‘rule-breaking’ can be found in the writings of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, William Thackeray, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare... pretty much anyone whose work has been adapted for the BBC Classic strand has been a fan of the hyperbolic literally.
Even with this evidence laid out, the Grammar Genius will dismiss the idea of the non-literal literal as nonsense. You can imagine the mouth down-turned as they attempt to disguise contempt as concern:
“At first, this article appeared to have a point. But breaking the accepted laws of grammar is just a pile of stuff and nonsense and hoo-ha and brouhaha"
Let's start at the very beginning...
(I hear it is a very good place to start)
... by addressing the upper and lower-case 'g'.
Written Grammars (as a proper noun, the name warrants the capital G) are codifications of usage. They aren’t statutes of law. Their purpose is to record the common use of grammar (with the small g) rather than dictate it. It is therefore only natural for grammar to be fluid and to change over time.
Even when the first English Grammars were written in the 16th century – when education was inconsistent and dialectical usage more common than national cohesion – their prime aim wasn’t, as you might imagine, to educate the masses. Henry VIII saw it as a means to show British authority by structuring a language with a similar complexity to the biblical Latin.
English Grammars continued to be written in Latin until the end of the 17th century – many by Danes and Germans, rather than the English – with each one including the preferences of the respective author. Much of what the Grammar Genius cites as correct is, in fact, arbitrary opinion and personal aesthetic choice.
The gravitas of grammar is greatly exaggerated
In the United Kingdom, most schools teach a prescriptive grammar as a series of given rules. They dictate the right from the wrong, the correct from the incorrect, the good from the bad. We may not question or discuss.
This tone will have been echoed at home, with most parents having also been taught in the same manner. We give it the respect of law because, within the smaller universe of childhood, teachers and parents make the law. A stern, ‘Mummy says so’ can put an end to even the most persistent ‘But whys’.
As we leave behind the innocence of childhood, we see the proper punishments for proper laws and our attitudes and beliefs change along with our understanding of authority.
We may forget to say our pleases and thankyous. We show less concern for elbow and table hygiene. We can easily discard a crust of bread uneaten, without a worry for the future growth of muscles or the curling of hair.
But nothing replaces what we were told about the laws of grammar, so they remain instilled in many of us. When people don’t follow those rules we remember, we judge them as lawbreakers. But they remain unpunished.
Step forward the Grammar Genius with their assumed authority. An authority that is based on the tenure of the word of a stranger and requires a blind faith that will seem bizarre to any non-religious person.
You may think it odd that someone like me, who writes demanding we become better with the words we use, seems to be arguing against my own argument. But that would be missing the point.
The extra in 1 Extra Word isn't a mark of intelligence. The extra isn't a call for more of the same. The extra is the thought that should be given to every word written for a business or brand.
An extra word can help make a business stand out by being more human. An extra word remains true to the brand as it comes from its very DNA. The extra doesn't go before time, costs or word count. The extra goes before ordinary. And changes it in the same way.
So my issue here isn't with the existence of grammar itself.
My issue is with how people think it is something to be enforced.
Having received feedback from the first publication of this article that questioned whether this is a demons