stickler? c’mon!

File this post under Rants and Ruminations. I have recently quit a group on Facebook called Grammarly. It is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek collection of complaints about people who have poor grammar, spelling, and usage skills. (Perhaps more about the skills than the people.) And it is the front door for a website, also called Grammarly, that sells a service that will analyze your writing and find all of the “mistakes” in it so you can become a better communicator.

I suppose.

Long-time readers of this humble blog know that I have only grudging regard for the so-called “rules” of grammar, especially in creative writing. (See my old Continuum post.) Communication comes first, and generally a person’s meaning is clear despite “incorrect” grammar, word choice, punctuation, and spelling. I believe I have the chops to make such an assertion. I have written technical manuals, feature articles, newsletters, and fiction. I have been both a book editor and a magazine editor. I have a master’s degree in professional writing, and I taught English composition at community college for several years. I know my way around a sentence. (My grammar “error” of choice is the sentence fragment, and none of the editors who have published my stories has ever complained about them. As Emma Darwin has said, grammar is a tool, not a rule.)

In most of the examples of errors they cite and then slightly ridicule, they are, to my mind, a bit mean and even condescending. (Your/you’re, its/it’s, supposably, less/fewer, and the like) The group also includes readerly or writerly quotations and occasional links to their website. It’s all benign, but it feels petty. I have occasionally left a comment on some of their posts when I find their point especially elitist or unkind. Usually I get flamed, saying I lack a sense of humor and that the point is just joking around. (Funny, isn’t that what bullies say too? And should I put a comma before “too”? Ellen?)

One of their posts cited a somewhat famous article in the Harvard Business Review by Kyle Wiens. In this article he says that he will not hire a person, regardless of qualifications, if that person exhibits poor grammar in the pre-employment test he gives all applicants. He calls himself a grammar “stickler.” That’s being generous in my view, but read and judge the article for your fine self. (There is a story, probably apochryphal, that Henry Ford would take potential employees to dinner, and if they salted their food before tasting it, they would not be hired. Imagine the talent that went on to work for his competitors based on this arbitrary standard.)

Grammar, of course, is the codification of how we communicate today. Hamlet could not have been written by our current set of rules. Nor Moby Dick. Some grammar is optional, often dependent on no more than which style book you’ve sworn allegiance to. Much usage is regional. Even spelling can be variable. (My life goal is to get “enuf” accepted as standard spelling.) So-called poor grammar is probably the most common failing of people as well as the most easily “corrected.”

Further, I’m convinced that the vast majority of employers, consumers, and other potentates wouldn’t know a good sentence from a bad one. That’s certainly been my experience in the working world.

Bottom line: I would not want to work at a place that has such an intolerant approach to such an ambiguous matter.

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3 Comments on “stickler? c’mon!”


  1. I have a different (but sometimes similar) perspective. My job is to make sure the food is salted enough, so to me these suggestions are rules. However, I am keenly conscious of audience. In creative writing, the rules are relaxed. Don’t make fun of people who can’t use the English language if it’s not their job to get it right. (This still leaves plenty of room to make fun of the major publisher who published a cookbook that recommended putting ground black people on a dish instead of ground black pepper.)

  2. Diane Says:

    Arrant Pedantry just ran a wonderful deconstruction of Grammarly’s work on everything from 50 Shades to Shakespeare, pointing out some of the same things you did, particularly the fact that grammar is not fixed across a period of four centuries. I linked it here: http://dianelmajor.blogspot.com/2015/02/collection_27.html

    The older I get, the more I enjoy learning just how many of the “rules” we hear people snarking about most are BS. It’s a glorious release, letting go of being a stickler.

  3. emily Says:

    Grammatical errors are language in evolution. This is how languages change over times- as people stop making distinctions that are less useful or require too much effort to remember to use by people aren’t grammarians. I think we are going to lose the who/whom distinction pretty soon.


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