Grammar Shaming Is Not Only Rude, It’s Just Straight-Up Outdated

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There’s a reason that those who know a bit about grammar become its enforcers: Nobody else really seems to care about it. Like a lonesome fine arts restorer in the basement of The Met, grammarheads typically work independently, but with the steel-driven purpose to remove debris that’s collected on the face of language. Is there any first responder quicker on their feet than a grammar fanatic? (“Jambalaya and <3,” reads the first comment on your post about putting your beloved dog down. Thanks, Aunt Hilda.) They are the watchmen of language, the last guard of dangling modifiers, Strunk and White and Oxford commas…and before you open a new email to blast me, we do not use serial commas at PureWow.

As an English major and now professional writer and editor, I too have felt that electric tinge when spotting and correcting a grammatical error. Is there anything more cathartic than slashing a red pen through a completely misguided capitalized letter like Zoro through a white sheet on a clothing line? But as much as I can appreciate the adrenaline rush of diagramming a sentence, I also, admittedly, have my own shortcomings: My idiom recall is wonky—for instance, the post office is the mail station—I’m a slow reader and a mediocre speller at best. Every syntactical and semantical choice I send out into the universe feels ripe with trip wires. One wrong step and the grammarheads have me in their crosshairs ready to shame me.

And while there’s nothing new about grammar shaming—the act of pointing out an “incorrect” usage of language—there is something stale about it. Yes, grammar is important. Its purpose is to help us communicate more clearly. A single comma can change everything: “Call me Daddy!” vs. “Call me, Daddy!” is the difference between a line of dialogue in a porno and a line of dialogue in a Taken film.

Copy editors, style guides, etc.—these are important for consistency of the written word in certain circumstances. Publications should employ a set of rules for the words that live on their pages. Teachers teaching grammar should be able to require students to execute it correctly. Screenplays should be punctuated clearly so we know if the scene should be delivered in more of a sexy-pizzaman tone or a Liam-Neeson’s-daughter-being-kidnapped tone.

But grammar is not physics. It does not exist without us in the natural world. It is something we, collectively—from the macro societal scale to the linguistic politics of our nuclear families—make up as we go along. As fast as the folks at AP, MLA and Chicago work to enforce their style guides, the nature of how language evolves means that those creating the rules around language will always be ten steps behind.

And let’s be honest, most of the time, despite grammatical missteps, we can understand what a person is trying to communicate. Watching a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Dallas, Tiffany, a highly educated anesthesiologist, laughs and corrects Kameron, an archetypal blonde bimbo (a costume that she strategically chooses to step in and of at her own liking), for a series of grammatical errors—conflating the adjectives “two-faced” and “contradictory” and also not knowing the meaning of “cathartic.” Kameron responds by asking Tiffany if she likes making people feel stupid, and while we can get into the Tiffany v. Kameron feud another time (#teamTiffany: I believe Kameron’s chicken feet comments are actually far more harmful), Kameron raises a fair point. (Here’s an actual clip of the conversation.)

Tiffany thinks she’s helping Kameron by teaching her to speak correctly, but Kameron feels belittled. Even without Tiffany’s correction, everyone got what Kameron was saying. So what’s the point of calling her out? Is it just to humiliate her? And, not to get philosophical, but if we know what Kameron’s saying, even if she is saying it “incorrectly,” then she’s still saying it. Sure, Kameron Westcott is rich as hell and probably had one fine education, but who are we to monitor how her brain works? Or how anyone’s brain works?

Which brings me to one of the most important reasons we should stop the shaming: dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning disability characterized by difficulty reading. And while dyslexia takes many shapes and forms, it often extends to grammar learning. According to The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, “Dyslexia affects 20 percent of the population and represents 80 to 90 percent of all those with learning disabilities.” Twenty percent of the population? That means that every one out of five times you correct a person’s misuse of something as stupidly complicated as a homophone (words that sound exactly like each other but are spelled differently), you are potentially telling this to someone who’s already been told something like this every damn day of their life. There are brilliant minds who can’t for the life of them figure out which witch or which their, they’re or there to use. It is not a reflection of someone’s intelligence. It is not a blatant disregard for the rules. It’s literally the way 20 percent of the population’s brains work.

But it doesn’t end there. What seems like a minor correction or “trying to help” can actually just make someone who’s already vulnerable within society feel even more exposed—essentially punishing someone for a disability, for their socio-economic upbringing or culture. The more we understand about dyslexia, the less we should care about whether someone used the wrong “their.” The more we understand that the system is broken, that while one class of sixth graders is learning about the past participle while another is reading at a third-grade level, the less we should care if a candidate’s resume has a spelling error. The more we understand about the power of language and identity, the less we should care about trying to make those we deem “other” sound more like us.

At its best, grammar policing enforces rules that help us communicate more clearly. At its worst, it’s a set of arbitrary rules that allows some people to climb the ladder while holding others back. And isn’t the whole point of language to set us free?

Either way, if we needed Liam Neeson to come rescue us, we have a feeling he’d get the gist, with or without the comma.



Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...