Family & Education

Grammar is important, but don't be a snob

This week Susan Reuben reflects on the difference between being a grammar snob, and just a snob


I am responsible for sending out email updates to members of the congregation I attend. Last year, I sent a message stating that, “Rabbit Chaim Weiner will lead a study session next week”.

Normally, I pride myself so much on my accurate English that even when I’m writing a text message I read it through before I send it, and quite often make minute adjustments and corrections. (I’m a wild person to have at a party, believe you me.)

So I was pretty embarrassed about having referred to the head of the Masorti Beth Din as a rabbit… But y’know, anyone can make a one-off mistake, and despite all the well-justified teasing I got, I regained my sense of linguistic dignity fairly quickly.

Until, that is, two months later when I sent out another email, this time saying that we were, “looking forward to a D’var Torah with Rabbit Daniel Goldfarb”.

“Doesn’t she know I’m not a rabbit — I’m a guinea pig?” Rabbi Goldfarb replied. Inwardly, I decided that I would quite like to be one myself, and to go and hide in my burrow for a few weeks.

Even when I’m not making daft errors, I do try to avoid being too rigidly pedantic about language. I think it’s important to bear in mind that it’s constantly evolving, and that at any rate, once you’ve got a good handle on the rules, it’s fine to break them. This column has an informal tone, so I can get away with using expressions like “y’know” and the odd incomplete sentence, and it all helps to create the effect I’m striving for.

I am, nevertheless, a grammar snob. There’s no getting away from it. I was made particularly aware of this recently when I came across a Guardian piece by Mona Chalabi. It was called “Grammar snobs are patronising, pretentious and just plain wrong”.

In it, Chalabi argues that it just doesn’t matter if you confuse “less” with “fewer” and use “literally” when you’re speaking figuratively — it’s still perfectly obvious what you mean.

Technically, she’s right. The mistakes that people love to pick up on often do not cause any ambiguity at all. But I feel that she’s missing an essential point, which is that to use language carefully and thoughtfully is to preserve its infinite nuances and subtleties.

Sure, if I say, “There were literally millions of people at the party,” then no one’s going to think I really mean it. But if one argues that it therefore doesn’t matter that I’ve used the word incorrectly, then when I do actually want to refer to “literally millions of people”, I’ve lost the ability to do so with clarity — unless I add an explanation that I mean “literally”, literally…

Something in Chalabi’s piece did get me thinking, though: “All too often, it’s a way to silence people,” she says, “and that’s particularly offensive when it’s someone who might already be struggling to speak up.”

I read the following post on Facebook the other day: “Sat in a café listening to a woman complaining about how her Philippines-born cleaners don’t know the difference between “their” and “they’re”. I’m not a violent person — but what to do?”

What to do indeed? The ignorance, the sense of entitlement demonstrated by that conversation just blows my mind. The ignorance of how challenging it must be for the cleaners to work in this far-distant country, speaking and writing in a language radically different from their own. The sense of entitlement that not only is the woman lucky enough to have more than one person to clean for her, but she expects those people to have a skill entirely irrelevant to their job.

Perhaps my friend could have interrupted the conversation, and suggested that as no doubt the woman has impeccable command of Tagalog, it would make sense for her to write down “their” and “they’re” for her cleaners in their own language.

(“Their” is ang kanilang and “they’re” is ang mga ito in case you’re wondering.)

I agree with Chalabi that there’s no point in arguing that correct grammar leads to clearer communication, if people are too afraid to communicate at all for fear of being judged. If that happens, it’s a way to silence people indeed.

Where, then, does this leave me? I think, with a sense that spelling and grammar and punctuation move together in an intricate dance that gives language its endless layers of meaning — and that that is a precious and beautiful thing. But if by trying to preserve it you end up being condescending and making others feel disempowered, then that’s really problematic.

So, grammar snobs — you know better than anyone that words are powerful. If, therefore, you use them to correct the language of others, tread lightly — do so with care.


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