When I was a kid, you did not want to mix up your adverbs and adjectives around me. Forget to the put the -ly on an adverb and you were sure to hear a swift rebuke. Heaven help you if you ever split an infinitive or uttered a double negative. If we could hear commas, I’d probably have let you know you were using them wrong (er…incorrectly). Back in the day we used to call it being a Grammar Nazi. Today, we recognize this is insensitive to Nazis, but whatever you want to call it, I’m still one on the inside. I try not to say anything, I really do, but I’m thinking it. Be warned.
I shouldn’t have to tell you I was an awkward kid. The thing about being awkward is that you generally don’t know how awkward you are until you get older. As a teen, you don’t think of it as being awkward. You think of it as being smart. Everyone tells you they hate it, that it’s annoying, which makes you do it more. If not endearing, at least it proves the point. Knowing the correct usage of grammar puts us on a higher plane of understanding. Language, after all, forms the basis for all of human intelligence and underlies all of our communication. Therefore, the degradation of language necessarily involves a loss in the capacity of both understanding and communication, but proper usage restores language to its full potential. Right? Yes. Maybe. But, well, it’s complicated.
Grammar is not so much a rule as a fact. It’s impossible to speak without using a grammar. Jackson, my 2-year-old, has a grammar. It’s not the “correct” grammar, but it is a consistent system of speech which, when I have become accustomed to it (and he enunciates clearly enough), I can understand perfectly well. He tends to drop his verbs. He says, “I stinky,” to mean “I am stinky” and, “I something else” to mean “I want something else (to eat).” He says, “I no like jacket” to mean “I don’t want to wear my jacket.” Virginia, my 5-year-old, has her own grammar too, a little more advanced, of course, but still full of gooses for geese and speaked for spoke. These variations don’t represent a lack of grammar or a “poor” grammar. Jackson’s obviously leaves something to be desired in terms of clarity, but Virginia’s arguably represents a more faithful following of the basic rules. They are not degradations of some pure form, but rather wholly-contained, internally-consistent structures they use based on their experience. As they grow, they will learn the common set of rules not so much because they are ascending to a higher level of intelligence or education but because they will naturally conform to the structures of those around them and those which are taught in school.
“Correct” grammar, the kind I insisted on in my more fascistic youth, are simply those rules put down by the MLA, or the literary elite, or whatever other academic governing body determines these things, and do not necessarily even reflect common usage. Any other usages, whether regional or ethnic or generational, are not “incorrect” but merely different from the academic standard. It makes no difference whether someone uses good or well, be or am, adverb or adjective as long as I can still understand them, which, if I know how to correct them, I obviously can. Isn’t that the point of speech? To communicate.
My younger self considered the variations of grammar usage a sign of failure to learn and adapt to the rules of proper communication. I looked down on people for not knowing how they should speak, or at least I got a kick out of informing them. The irony is that this was a misunderstanding on my part. I was the one failing to understand to the purpose of the rules or adapt to the social realities. It should have been obvious, given how annoying and off-putting it was. I used it as a wedge; no surprise it breaks me apart. Pride does that.
The same irony is present in all the ways we make ourselves feel superior. Moral superiority is a moral failing. It’s the inability to understand morality or recognize our own faults. That’s why truly moral people think they are worse than everyone else, and why, consequently, they are loving and caring and the type of person who is attractive. The self-righteous are repellant. As are the intellectually arrogant, who are always trying to show how smart they are, which inevitably becomes a display of ignorance. True intelligence requires an appreciation for how little a person can know, which drives both deep curiosity and deep humility, listening as much as correcting. Pride and self-absorption, like strict adherence to a narrow set of rules or a particular political ideology, are so limiting because they blind us to the full breadth of the world. They let us feel righteous and secure and superior within our tiny little universe, but they often accomplish the opposite of what we intend.
This is not an argument that we shouldn’t have rules or that we shouldn’t follow them. That rules are in some sense arbitrary does not mean that they have no purpose. Some serve the cause of clarity. In the sentence, “People who drink tea frequently have to use the restroom,” what does the adverb “frequently” apply to? Is it drinking tea frequently the cause of going to the restroom? Or does tea drinking cause frequent trips to the restroom? That may not seem important, but consider, “People who smoke frequently get lung cancer.” This is called a Misplaced Modifier. At some point people decided you shouldn’t do it, but that was an arbitrary choice. You don’t have to follow it. You can still be understood without it, especially when context and intonation are added. Then there are conventions, such as sticking -ly onto adverbs. It could easily have been -lo, as in, “I went quicklo to the store.” Or we could have no addendum at all, as in, “I went quick to the store.” It makes no difference, except perhaps in the pleasantness of the sound or the ease in distinguishing the parts of speech, which only linguists and grammarians care about in the first place. And all spelling is, of course, arbitrary. The sound of a word doesn’t have to have any connection to its meaning.
You can see the important thing about a rule is not ultimately what it says but that everyone agrees what it says. Rules are inherently social. It’s ridiculous to say (and how could you?) that you have your own personal grammar or your own personal language. You can have small variations only to the point where others can still understand you. Past that point, you lose everything. Over time, the variants may become widespread and accepted, so that the rules change, which is why language evolves slowly through the course of generations and why different areas and groups have different dialects.
This is the value of having an authority in grammar or anywhere else. To speak a language you must adequately follow the rules of the language. To fit into a society you must adequately follow the rules of the society. Those rules will exist whether anyone defines and writes them down, but to communicate in the most effective way with the highest number of people, to flourish in the society, it helps to know the rules precisely and conform to them closely, especially as an outsider.
It’s equally ridiculous to think that you can have your own private morality or that everyone can choose for themselves. We accept authority in our lives the same way we accept it in our speech. We may make small variations for our convenience or in satisfaction of our desires, but doing so represents a separation from society and the greater world around us. We break rules at our own risk. We can serve ourselves only at the cost of everyone else.
With all this in mind, it becomes easier to see the need for grace. The tension between Authority and Freedom is a pull toward the same center. Both seek connection. A strict authoritarianism is as self-serving as a wanton licentiousness. Both separate us. But grace connects. It brings us closer to what the law always intended. The proper way to speak (or to live) is to know and to seek the wisdom of the authority while recognizing and forgiving the faults of ourselves and others. This is the only way to have an authority that doesn’t strangle us and a freedom that doesn’t consume us.
As a writer, I’ve studied the rules of grammar, so I always follow them except when I don’t. When I don’t, it’s not because of ignorance nor just because I can, but in service to the higher purpose for which the rules were made. Except when it isn’t. In those cases, I hope you’ll forgive me. I promise not to say anything the next time you dangle a participle.