I have always been a total freak about grammar and usage. I will admit this freely. (I just deleted the phrase “and openly” because it was redundant. My decision to post a blog entry about my grammar obsession is now making me completely neurotic about how I write said entry.)
My coworkers know well how I wave my written word freak flag. And they should. We’re all writers, for crying out loud. My family knows. I am told that some of them are occasionally afraid to send me an email because I might judge them.
I wouldn’t judge them. They’re my family.
Total strangers? I definitely judge total strangers.
Here’s the thing: I cannot understand how someone can get to their 20s without realizing that they’re doing it wrong. I mean, how does one go through life having no idea that they’re using “they’re,” “their” or “there” inappropriately? Or that there is a difference between “your” and “you’re?” How does one not take note, at some point in life, that “a lot” is two words?
And since when is it acceptable to use apostrophes as an indication of decades? 20’s, 30’s, etc… NO. That’s WRONG. But apparently, we’re going with it. Which means I have a bone to pick with the caretakers of modern language.
I credit (yes, credit) my lifelong love of reading for the fact that I am obsessive about these rules to the point of twitching when I see something written incorrectly. I don’t even think it has to do with learning it in school. Lord knows there was plenty I should have remembered from some lesson when I was seven that’s long gone at this point. But I think that being a reader is more important to developing a real understanding of the written word than is a lesson in school, or a teacher’s constant red-ink corrections (which are usually just resented and therefore disregarded). And I don’t think that you can force someone to love reading. So I understand when such a person maybe hasn’t grasped the fact that there is no apostrophe in “apostrophe’s.” (When has an apostrophe ever possessed anything? I dare you to write a sentence in which the word “apostrophe” possesses something. I’m throwing down that challenge right now. Post it in the comments. Go.)
But there is also such a thing as the power of observation. And this is where I get hung up.
To me, if you didn’t learn the lesson in school, and you didn’t learn it from reading, then your powers of observation should be enough to let you know that you’re screwing up the language in a royal way. Yet, the people in my life who are most consistently guilty of grammatical screw-ups are also very observant. I don’t understand how this happens. My sister, for example. My sister can see a guy in her peripheral vision walking by with a dog, and later tell you exactly what he was wearing, what color hair he had, whether he had glasses and, if so, what the frames looked like, what kind of dog he was walking, and what color the leash was. But she cannot spell “receive” correctly to save her life.
I am aware that my dear friends and family are sometimes intimidated by my worthsmithing, so I consciously choose not to correct them when they write things incorrectly. Instead, if it really starts to bug me, I’ll repeat their word, but in correct usage, in my reply to their message. For example, my friend Jay constantly spells “ridiculous” wrong. He spells it “rediculous.”
Which is ridiculous.
And so I reply by using the word in a sentence, spelled correctly.
Jack does something I’ve never seen anyone else do. He spells “a lot” as one word, with an extra L. “Allot.”
Seriously? You’re a bright guy, Jack. You write for a living. “Allot?”
And this brings me to another realization: I have a pretty good handle on word origins. Turns out, that helps quite a bit. If you know that the origin of the word “ridiculous” is the word “ridicule,” and you understand that you are not, somehow, re-diculing anything (seeing as how there’s no such verb as “dicule” to allow for a re-dicule), then you know that the proper spelling of the word is, in fact, “ridiculous.”
I mean I really don’t think it’s that difficult.
I once told my mother, in a moment of epiphany, that I had very little tolerance for people who were not smart. “Oh, really?” she said, in a tone that made it clear that she had been aware of this intolerance for, oh, about two decades or so. Apparently, she thinks I believe I’m smarter than everyone else. But that’s not it at all. I think everyone else is exactly as smart as me. That is why I get frustrated. But maybe that’s not even a fair assessment. Maybe I think that other people are as observant, or more observant, than me. I could never do what my sister can do with descriptions. So why can’t she spell “receive?”
Obviously, there’s an aptitude for language and an aptitude for visual cues. What’s interesting to me is that they are not linked. I find language to be a visual medium. You read. You see what you write. There’s memory generated from that. It’s why note-takers learn better. So why is it that visual learners like my sister cannot digest and internalize language that same way?
Boggles the mind.
Now, you may have noticed that I often make use of incomplete sentences (and parenthetical phrases). That is because I am fully aware that I am writing an incomplete sentence (or a parenthetical phrase), and I’m doing it for stylistic reasons. They still make sense, these sentence fragments (and phrases), when taken in context. But I think it’s obvious when someone is a competent writer and uses sentence fragments on purpose, as opposed to someone who doesn’t seem to know that a formal letter should not contain the sentence, “That everything was messed up.”
If your writing is so bad that even you can’t read what you’ve written, don’t you think you should brush up on some stuff?
I suppose you’re beyond hope at that point.
And so I judge you. I judge you if you want to flirt with me via email, but you spell words wrong and don’t use “there” properly. If you tell me, “you’re smile is pretty,” you are off the list. It’s sweet, and I appreciate the sentiment, but you’re kind of dumb, or at least careless.
Yet observant enough to notice my smile.