In Defense of Bad Grammar, Part 1: Form Follows Function

At any party you go to, without fail, the biggest dolt in the room is the one who corrects your grammar. Is there anything more aggravating than a person saying as a rejoinder, “Don’t you mean an animal, not animal?” That’s a surefire way to take what could have been a fascinating conversation and force it to a grinding halt.

I myself am a former English major and am currently a self-employed writer, so you might expect me to be on the side of the noisome grammarians, but actually the opposite is the case. Everything I’ve learned about the craft itself has taught me how deleterious the effects of academic critiquing are.

To illustrate my meaning, first let me point out that if you were to take a class in linguistics, one thing you’d learn is that linguists are not terribly concerned with the formal aspect of the language, but are very concerned about the functionality of the language. Form follows function, as the old saying goes.

Let me take a step back and point out that language, in its purest form, is a means for an end. Before we are able to put salt on our hamburger, we first have to learn to say “pass the salt.” The purpose is to salt your burger, not to say it in the prettiest fashion possible. Grammatically, it may be finer to say “Pass the salt to me,” but I think it can be easily inferred the salt is meant for you, not for your sister who is eating happily. To that end, you could even motion in the direction of the shaker and simply say “the salt,” and people will likely catch your drift, but this could create a moment’s confusion that could be easily circumvented by adding the verb “pass.”

At times, bad grammar can come in handy. Imagine you’re stargazing with a friend. Would it be better to say “There is a shooting star above us,” and run the risk of them missing it entirely, or just point quickly and say “a shooting star!”

The point inevitably is to convey your point. To give you another example when bad grammar is completely arbitrary, look at “ebonics,” (I hate that phrase by the way–is there a better word for it?). In this slangy form of English that has popped up in mainly urban areas, there’s very little punctuation or adherence to grammatical rules, and yet, from a purely functional point of view, it’s perfectly fine as a mode of communication. Look at the statement “Imma be late.” Of course, it would be more grammatically correct to say “I am going to be late,” but “Imma be late” gets the same exact message across: you are going to be late. The only real difference is, the first is a mere 4 syllables, while the grammatical example is 7. Saying “Imma be late” actually gets the point across faster.

The counterargument could be made that “ebonics” shouldn’t be spoken because it will confuse someone who comes from a different and more traditional background. To me, that argument is similar to saying you shouldn’t write in English because the French won’t understand it. Again, the point is to convey your message to your intended audience. In most cases, your audience is made up of your friends, family, and coworkers–if they all speak the same as you, what purpose can there be in learning and adhering to “proper” grammar?

Newt Gingrich, who has developed a well-earned reputation for having the uncanny ability to put his foot in his mouth at any given moment, was perhaps at his most asanine when he said American citizens should “learn the language of prosperity, not the language of the ghetto.” Beyond the obvious racism of that statement, there’s an inherent silliness in it too. Why not let the person speak the language their family speaks? What real reason can there be to learn the “language of prosperity?”  To survive in America as an immigrant, all you really need to learn is a smattering of English words, and most businesses have already developed a workspace patois that keeps things rolling along efficiently. I would rather someone go home and speak to their family than go attend night classes in English composition just so they can understand more of the banalities that make up conversations with superiors at work.

To reiterate, if you’re able to communicate your intentions, then grammatical conventions are irrelevant. If someone proceeds to correct your grammar anyways, tell them, simply, “Stop.” That’s a sentence fragment, but it works beautifully (this is also a sentence fragment).

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What’s your opinion of bad grammar?


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