Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Grammar Police: Zealousness over Correctness

The New York Times recently posted an opinion piece and a short film about a "vigilante copy editor" who was "correcting" placards at the sculpture garden at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Among the hundreds of comments lamenting the proliferation of bad grammar and misspellings in the world were the inevitable swipes at the grammar and spelling of the other commenters, as well as that of The Times.

Making the rounds on Facebook is a cartoon of an English teacher being arrested for defacing a billboard that said "Got Milk?" so that it read "Do You Have Any Milk?" One arresting officer says, "Sorry, Ma'am, but bad grammar is no excuse for vandalism."

There's no question that people are passionate about grammar. Even when they're wrong.

Grammar is not as immutable as disciplines like physics. For example, some people would object to the use of "like" in the previous sentence, saying it needs to be "such as." Some people will insist that split infinitives are never correct, or that a sentence can never end with a preposition nor begin with a conjunction. (Search "zombie rules of grammar" for more examples.) Because language is fluid and changing, there's a lot more leeway for adaptation, idiom and, yes, humor.

Using what some see as bad grammar ironically or deliberately can backfire. Bill Walsh, an editor at The Washington Post, experienced that when he sought to promote his new book, Yes, I Could Care Less, on LinkedIn.

"I found a come-on from LinkedIn offering $50 worth of free advertising," Walsh said. "The ad that I mocked up fit the format perfectly, so I submitted it. Later that day I got the world's funniest rejection notice: ‘We have reviewed your ad with the headline Yes, I Could Care Less in the campaign Book, and it was not approved for the following reason: Advertisement contains misspelled words, poor grammar, or inappropriate punctuation.'"

Um, the point of the title is that "I could care less" is idiomatic for "I don't care at all." Many, though, would say the phrase must be "I couldn't care less." And while it's nice that LinkedIn is policing for such things, it should adjust its algorithm.

Fortunately for Walsh, the media blogger Jim Romenesko picked up on the kerfuffle, and LinkedIn soon reversed its decision.

A similar thing happened to Patricia T. O'Conner with her book Woe Is I, a common-sense grammar guide. "Several readers of my book (but no reviewers) did attack the title of my book," she said. "They thought the title was meant to illustrate good grammar, and that it implied the old expression ‘woe is me' was incorrect. They said, more or less, ‘Do you mean to tell me that Shakespeare and the Bible were wrong?' I of course chose the title to make fun of hypercorrectness. The butt of the joke is the old convention—now considered excessively formal—requiring the nominative case after the verb ‘to be.' I wanted to show how ridiculous we sound when we go overboard in the name of correctness. But some readers didn't get it."

Bad grammar is rarely fatal. It might even be deliberate. Irregardless, it ain't necessarily as bad as you think.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.