I love the English language. I love the nuances, subtlety, and creativity inherent in any language made up by bastardizing somewhere between 15 and 70 other languages. I could spend hours talking about the insane intricacies of the English language. But I won’t. Because, several comedians have already made a career by beating that horse into sweet, savory, taco meat.
Instead, I’m going to focus on the one aspect of the language I have a real beef against: Grammar.
As a writer, you would think I have a love affair with grammar. You would think I enjoy all of those tiny, ridiculous rules we’ve arbitrarily imposed. You would think I dive into manuals of style like they are sacred religious texts.
Sometimes I do, because, I have to.
Really smart people spent a really a lot of time and money convincing the world their unique way of writing was best. So, I have to spend time and effort obeying their extremely well-marketed rules.
I hate it.
Shakespeare had it easy. When he was writing, the majority of English-speakers were illiterate. No one knew the rules but the writers. This is why Shakespeare’s works are full of errors. Seriously, he couldn’t even decide the proper way to spell his own name.
He didn’t have to send his work off to an editor and a proofreader because they didn’t exist. Who cares if there is a typo (A Quill-O?) in MacBeth? No one can read, so who are they to judge his grammar?
This is in direct contradiction to the modern world. Literacy is abound. According to one study, English is the third most widely-spoken language on the planet. Since Chinese is actually made up of at least 13 different languages, they are cheating.
English is also one of the most universally literate languages in the world. Most English speakers can read.
For a writer, this is both blessing and curse.
If I were an optimist, I would point out more English readers means a larger potential audience.
But I’m not, so I’m going to point out a higher literacy rate is the cause for the internet’s fifth most devastating creation: Grammar Nazis.
Grammar has a purpose not inherently made obvious by its dictionary definition:
the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.
I propose we change the definition to fit purpose:
socially agreed upon rules to help us understand each other’s writing
This, of course, means we will have to change how we define the rules.
For the better part of the last 125 years, we’ve allowed the rules of communications to be controlled by a small, elite group. Why? Because they literally wrote the book–or books as the case may be.
I’m specifically looking at the Chicago Manual of Style and Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford.
These two books–both of which were originally conceived in the 1890s–represent the official way to write for general readers in the US and UK, respectively.
Extremely important note: The CMOS and the OUP rarely agree on anything. They were created on opposite sides of the western world with widely divergent needs. Neither was intended by its creator to be the official grammar of the world, simply the grammar the printers would use to be internally consistent.
And yet, they did become the standard.
To this day, the average grammar troll is referencing one of these two books–or god forbid one of the industry specific style guides, such as the Bluebook or the AP Style Guide.
This is all fine and good. If we as a society–that is all 1.4 billion English speakers on the planet–want to adopt one of these as the universal English grammar, I will happily join in.
Just do me a favor, and campaign for one of the style guides that doesn’t cost $65 because it’s only available in hardback.
Which brings me to a new point. Why do we trust written communication in the digital age to a company that is incapable of publishing an ebook?
We can’t, and we shouldn’t.
That is why, I am proposing we start crowdsourcing a new, universal English Manual of Style. Someone should jump all over this. I’m probably not the guy to do it, but someone should. Hell, you could build it as a wiki.
Since I am offering this brilliant suggestion, I should probably be the first to propose some new rules for the UEMOS.
I like the word “whom.” I do. I think it is fun to say. Try it. Whom. Whoooooom. See, it feels good. Which is why it is with a heavy heart and extreme sadness I must inform you all, “whom is a dead word.
It does have a meaning. There is a distinction between “who” and “whom,” and you can learn the difference pretty easily. I use the same mnemonic for “who/whom” as I do for “it’s/its.” Replace it with “he/she” in the sentence and see if it still sounds correct.
For example, “I know for whom the bell tolls.” If you follow the rule above, the sentence would read, “I know for him the bell tolls.”
So, that sentence is correct. Unfortunately, I do know for whom the bell tolls… it tolls for “whom.”
Most grammaritarians will tell you, it is better to use “who” incorrectly than “whom.” Using “who” has become generally acceptable in casual writing. Using “whom” incorrectly makes you sound like an idiot.
So why do we keep it as a word at all? We don’t need it. It can go the way of the ornithopter–a quaint idea from antiquity we no longer need.
Conversely, we can replace the meaning. The new definition of “whom” could read, “A word used to denote the speaker is a pretentious tool. See also: organic, winning, and coleslaw”
2: Internet Shorthand
I get it. You’re old. You don’t know about these kids and their new-fangled lol’s and fml’s. “Why can’t they just get on the Facebook and share their kitten videos and candy crushes without all this pound signing?”
I understand your pain. I am also getting old and I absolutely love fully articulate and verbose sentences crammed as full of my beautiful language babies as possible. Shorthand doesn’t jive with my turkey, if you catch my drift.
But, that’s my problem. Not language.
Grammar is fluid. Grammar is decided by the majority. Unfortunately for me, and just about every babyboomer I’ve spoken to in the last three years, the majority has decided to use shorthand.
There is a case to be made about purposely obscuring the meaning of acronyms to create an elitist society of those who know lording it over those who do not. I’ve heard that case, and I think it impressed upon my brain. However, this is not that situation.
When 236 million twitter followers know what #FML means, it isn’t a secret club.
And seriously, are you not just as able as I am to google “#FML?” Try it. You’ll find your answers. You know what won’t help you understand?
Bitching about it.
3: Handling Homophones
Homophones. The bane of my writing existence. I am guaranteed to have at least one misused homophone in any piece of writing over 50 words.
I can’t help it. My brain just autopilots and picks whichever one the fingers feel like typing at the moment.
Trust me, if you’ve found one(or more) of these errors in my books, you’re seeing the very small percentage. Like all editors, mine catches 99% of the mistakes in the book. When it comes to homophones, he’s probably closer to 99.99999%. That still leaves a very large number of these errors in my writing.
Now, here’s the thing. I don’t want to change the rules to make me universally right. I just want to make it punishable by incineration for someone to troll me on it.
It is one thing to send me an email saying, “Hey, Matt, you used accidents instead of accidence on page 154.” I open myself up to it by publically shaming myself and the English language in the form of published work.
It is a completely different situation to stop into the comments of someone’s Facebook post for the sole purpose of correcting “your” into “you’re.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “Yeah, they know.” Most of us don’t proofread or edit everything we post on a social media site. On the off-chance they do not actually know the difference, do you really think publically shaming them is the best way to supplement what was probably not a great education?
No. You’re just being a condescending butt-chunk.
So there you go. There are my proposals for the UEMOS. If anyone out there decides to put together a UEMOS wiki and deems it proper I be placed in charge of all human communications, I will gladly accept your worship offer.