Recently, a horde of raving copy editors swarmed Providence, RI for the conference of the American Copy Editors’ Society (Twitter handle #ACES2019). ‘Ace’ (as in very good) might seem a little zesty for a bunch of grammar enthusiasts, a group of people generally not known for their love of fun. (Of course, anyone who thinks grammar is not fun has clearly never gotten drunk and argued with me about em-dashes.) Before we get into the new rules, let’s talk about what they mean—or don’t.
Grammar is often intrinsically linked to a variety of social issues—in particular, gender, race, and class. There has been increasing debate about the use of the singular ‘they,’ and, while many argue passionately in favor of making the official change, many are not as enthusiastic. (Note: this frequently has more to do with bigotry than a passion for grammar.) Still, the use of ‘he or she,’ as opposed to ‘they,’ remains on the most menacing test of grammar: the SAT*. Of course, the haters ignore that Shakespeare himself, pinnacle of high culture and known maker of dick jokes, used the singular they.
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*The SAT also has a number of questions devoted to concision (the most efficient possible use of language). For instance, it would be grammatically incorrect to say, “I walked onto the hot and sweltering beach.” Since ‘sweltering’ conveys more information than ‘hot’ and yet means nearly the same thing, using both is redundant. It seems confusing (also somewhat infuriating) that ‘he and she’ is less concise than ‘they’ and is somehow more correct.
Gender is hardly the only issue at play. English teachers have frequently approached rage bordering on a medical incident at words they perceive to be ‘improper English.’ But AAVE (African American Vernacular English) isn’t slang, isn’t unintelligent. Think of it this way: Americans from the East Coast might say ‘soda’ to mean a carbonated beverage; Americans from the Midwest might say ‘pop.’ Neither of those people are wrong—as much as it pains me to admit. (Pop people, you may not be wrong, but you are weird. Sorry.) Those among us who use AAVE are far less weird than these unhinged pop-drinkers. They are using an established dialect with grammar rules as rigorously structured as any other.
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In AAVE, negative concord—what your angriest English teacher would call a double negative—is a common phenomenon (think ‘he ain’t never’). Your angriest English teacher might become even angrier if you dropped this truth bomb: double negatives are extremely common in languages throughout the world. Ever taken a French class? Je n’ai jamais any idea that people thought ‘proper’ language use correlates directly with intelligence. It does not. ‘Proper’ language use correlates with a certain sort of education—and that education, unfortunately, correlates with money.
Grammar is useful when it helps us to clarify our points, to add nuanced tone and meaning to our communication. That’s all it is: a tool intended for use when applicable. You wouldn’t use a hammer to fix a broken lamp. And you wouldn’t use glue to fix a lamp that wasn’t broken at all.
Does it seem odd for someone so passionate about grammar to insist on its arbitrariness? I sure bet it does. But perhaps it’s far more strange to consider language so sacred when all the time we maketh new jokes; we createth new terms; and, if thou don’t like it, thou can shove it up thine ass. Language evolves. Let’s be evolved enough to understand that.
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Pictured above is a tweet concerning a grammar rule that no longer exists. Two years ago, it was correct. Let’s just establish that human beings are the ones making these decisions—human beings who, in being human, probably do ludicrously stupid things like pull repeatedly on push doors and pound Fireball whiskey. Do we have any obligation to listen to people like that? Like us? Maybe. Listening is one thing, but, besides grades and workplace requirements, there’s nothing compelling us to obey.
Here are the new rules: split infinitives are now acceptable, which means you can ‘boldly go’ instead of ‘go boldly,’ which is way less dramatic. You’re all good to write the percent symbol instead of the actual word ‘percent,’ which makes us 100% happy. The hyphen is going away in all cases where the meaning of the word is readily apparent. (Billion-dollar industry one such case in which the hyphenated word, ‘dollar,’ clearly refers to the word ‘billion.’ No one would mistake this term for dollarindustry—although, arguably, all industries are dollar industries).
Being a grammar nerd doesn’t always mean adhering to every grammar rule. Nerdiness is just the sort of passion that people like to yell at you for, and an intense love for grammar is truly a geekier-sounding passion for language. There’s a difference between following the rules and understanding what they mean—and don’t. If you do the former, you should do the latter, too.
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