Grammar Snobs are People Too

Jeff Deck is my hero.

In case you don’t know who he is, he wrote a book called “The Great Typo Hunt, Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time.” As you might imagine, the book chronicles a cross-continent journey Deck and his friend took to locate and eradicate public examples of those everyday grammar errors that have become so common in our society.

I first heard about the project when my older son gave me the book as a Christmas gift. (He said it was in honor of the many term papers I proofread for him through high school and college…not to mention the many disagreements we’ve had about commas over the years.) It turned out to be one of my favorite gifts, and I found myself laughing out loud more than once as I devoured those pages, awed by a man who’d go to those lengths to try to educate our increasingly uneducated public about the basics of our common language.

Which brings me to the purpose of this blog: reminding the writing public that the basics of our common language matter.

That probably sounds more than a bit pretentious, and it probably is. I mean, who am I to claim any greater knowledge than anyone else? I don’t know, really. I just know that I get it. I get grammar. But you have to understand – the ability to spot grammar errors is not something I’ve ever cultivated. I was born that way. I dream in prose, as if I’m writing, rather than cinematic images. I routinely scored in the 99th percentile in grammar during school, and I enjoyed diagramming sentences. It’s just who I am.

So this blog is dedicated to all the writers in the world who have wonderful, imaginative stories to tell, but who don’t know a comma from a semicolon, a subject from a predicate, or a dangling participle from a …well, you get the picture.

Call me a grammar snob, if you must, but I’m only trying to help, one grammar misconception at a time. So every week, either I or one of our guest editors will be writing about our favorite grammar errors, and trying to help others “see” the language as we do.

And what better place to start than the Urban Dictionary’s definition of grammar snob:

“Someone who gets so worked up by improper grammar, they are unable to function.”

(My fellow grammarians are likely clutching their heads right about now, screaming, “STOP THE PAIN!”)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is too perfect an example of incorrect grammar to pass up. It may be a common usage, and you might think it’s perfectly correct, but it’s not. It’s WRONG.

Let’s start with the basics of standard sentence structure. A typical sentence has a subject (whatever the sentence is about) and a predicate or verb (the action taking place around that subject). The subject and predicate/verb need to “agree”; they need to match in plurality (single subject with single verb, plural subject with plural verb), because if they don’t, the sentence doesn’t make sense, and the reader could get confused.

In our example, the basic subject is “someone.”

Now, picture “someone” in your head. Is “someone” a throng of people, or is it a person, a single individual? Here’s a clue: Someone.

Someone is a singular word, meaning it refers to a single person. One.

In our example, “someone” is modified by the descriptive phrase “who gets so worked up by improper grammar,” and that does match. Someone…gets. Perfectly correct. But if we keep reading to the the words after the comma which form the meat of the sentence, we run into trouble:

“Someone who gets so worked up by improper grammar, they are unable to function.”

Did you hear it? Did you hear the glaringly, painfully wrong “they are”?

If you didn’t, picture “they are” in your head. What do you see? Do you see a single person doing something, or do you see several people? If you said several, you would be right. They are is a plural phrase, not what our sentence needs to be correct.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, okay, grammar snob, it’s wrong, but everyone knows what that sentence means. And you’re probably right. But how does everyone know? We know because we’re smart people. Our brains have stopped, even if only a nanosecond, to translate the “they are” so the sentence make sense.

So why does this matter to a writer more than anyone else? Because words and language are a writer’s trade. A writer tells a story, paints a picture, in words – not finger paint, not numbers – words that are put together in a specific pattern to make sense, to convey a message. Sure, our readers can usually figure it out when we make mistakes – they’re smart people. But as writers, do we want them to have to figure out what we mean, even for a nanosecond? Do we want to throw them out of the picture we’re so carefully painting so they can stop to reconcile our mismatched words?

No. We want them to keep reading, so enthralled with our story that they don’t stop turning the pages until we’re ready to let them go, at the final word on the final page.

So, how should that sentence correctly read? If you’re following strict academic rules, it would be:

Someone who gets so worked up by improper grammar, he or she is unable to function.

I know, it’s a mouthful, and an awkward one at that. So as a writer, you’d probably want to rewrite it. But please, choose your words carefully. Make sure they make sense.

Words matter.

For more help with subject/verb agreement, check OWL, Purdue University’s online grammar lab.

__________________

Blog author (and self-proclaimed grammar snob) Leah Price may have been born with the ability to detect typos and grammar errors, but she’s honed those skills over years in the administrative field, where she’s held positions in government and the private sector, including five years as a legal secretary and ten-plus years as a line editor for court stenographers. It was  during those years in the legal field that she learned the importance of accuracy with the written word.