Getting the Guilt Out of the English Language
A Grammar Scold is a person—probably college-educated—who has done some reading but doesn’t read regularly; a person who thinks he knows the English language but who really doesn’t; a person who is obsessed by rules but doesn’t understand the end for which those rules were made.
A schoolmarm, basically, of either sex.
A Grammar Scold interrupts you to say you should’ve said “men are different from women” instead of “men are different than women.” A Grammar Scold testily reminds you that double negatives (as in “I ain’t got nothing”) are a sin. A Grammar Scold snorts superiorily whenever he or she hears a verb incorrectly conjugated. They also like to nit-pick about spelling and punctuation.
Unlike French or Italian, there is no official language academy that regulates our mother tongue.
The worst kind of Grammar Scold is the one that adheres to “rules” that are entirely obsolete. For instance, the ones who say that you can’t begin a sentence with “And” or “But,” or that ending a sentence with a preposition is absolutely verboten.
Besides being irritating, there’s a deeper problem with Grammar Scoldery: it has a disturbing streak of moral and intellectual snobbery. This particular brand of snobbery says that if you’re bad at spelling or don’t speak or write in the standard manner, you’re not only incorrect, you’re stupid.
In reality, there are no rules to the English language.
First of all, language is a creation of humans, and so it suffers from change and decay, just like everything else we touch.
And unlike French or Italian, there is no official language academy that regulates our mother tongue; nobody to tell us if “ain’t” is a real word or not, no one to finally and decisively decide if “made from” or “made of” is correct, no all-seeing body of wise men and women to tell us when a word has officially moved from slang to standard English.
Therefore, there are no “real” or “unreal” words in English; no right way, no wrong way. If it’s in common use, it’s correct.
Should people be careful about their grammar and spelling and pronunciation when they’re in a professional or academic setting? Of course. Should they read over their emails before they send them to check for errors? Probably. Should they feel morally superior to those who have non-standard grammar or poor spelling? No.
Grammar Scolds fail to realize that standardized spelling and the rules of English are fairly recent developments. If you look at almost any book in English published before 1750, you will find a wild, wonderful smorgasbord of strange spelling, capitalization, and punctuation—and never-ending sentences that seem to have no structure holding them together.
Part of this false conception of the English language is due to busy-body modern editors “correcting” classic texts, giving us the false impression that writers like Shakespeare wrote in a flawless, standard manner. But just look at this passage from Hamlet, published in the first official collection of Shakespeare’s works in 1623:
I have of late, but wherefore I know not, loft all my mirth, forgone all cuftome of exercife; and indeed, it goes fo heavenly with my difpofition; that this goodly frame the Earth, seems to me a fterill Promontory; this moft excellent Canopy the Ayre, look you, this braue ore-hanging, this Maiefticall Roofe, fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing to mee, then a foule and peftilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in Reason? how infinite in faculty? in forme and mouing how expreffe and admirable? in Action, how like an Angell? in apprehension, how like a God the beauty of the world, the Parragon of Animals; and yet to me, what is this Quinteffence of Dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you feeme to fay fo.
Besides the then-common use of “f” for “s” and the chaotic use of punctuation and capitalization, notice how “me” is spelled two different ways in the same passage. Also notice that Shakespeare uses a dreaded double-negative.
I guesse what I’m trying to get at heere is that Language—efpeciallie the English Language—is a living, breething Entity that is in a ftate of conftante Flux.
Embrace the Chaos, and beware the Grammar Scold.