Tallies — Proper Grammar Require Correction
“What,” asked Kate Winslet in the 2001 film Titanic, “is it that you seem to do the quickest?”
“Grammar,” replied Leonardo DiCaprio, in mock indignation.
I do it the quickest, too. Which is not so bad, if I keep to the approved style of my classmates. But one assumes that most children (or people, for that matter) by the time they reach sixth or seventh grade learn to deal with disagreements in much more complicated, and to better use their superior capital city vocabulary than I do. Although in my first year in high school, I found myself recently contradicting myself in a way I could never before have imagined: a student after my mistakes had been imposed on me, had demanded that I correct my own writing as a colleague corrected her.
Even more concerning to me is the fact that I am incapable of managing an argument. A colleague of mine once used a slang term with its specific origin in the vernacular, and my response was, in effect, “What is that?” “Manipulation,” he responded. I was puzzled. “Manipulation?” And then the word lingered in my head in a sort of unrefined guilt, as though I had compromised the meaning of a much more important world language.
“No, no, this word is very important to me,” he explained patiently and frankly.
“Um, I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong,” I said, “so I’m wondering.”
The lesson was, on the one hand, laughable. Yet, on the other, it is self-evident: whatever dispute we have with each other, we must be certain that we are not, as a human being, confusing words. They are the nuts and bolts of our language, the physical components of a rich and complex organ that makes these words suitable for real conversation, words that can be mimicked and taken apart in one fluid phrase after another and strengthened and weakened in the other.
Sensible language requires correction. By contrast, pop quiz, sticky note, or blog comments – banter and emails may be free and easy, but they have the quality of crudity. Their meaning is frail.
In fact, proper grammar entails supremely accurate language. Proper grammar is so important that it may not be fully understood by some who feel that correct grammar does not mean, as most of us do, using familiar phrases. It can be used to resolve a disagreement, in which both parties acknowledge their position. Proper grammar is worth arguing about.
And this may be even harder to understand than just about anything else in the evolution of language. Put yourself in the position of another person and imagine you can prove to this other person, and yourself, that you have the correct grammar, and why not, in exchange for your cooperation.
Now try to imagine how those people will treat you if you don’t. If you did something to prove to them you were correct, they would blame you and you, and they would say they are sure they are the only one who can prove they know it, and they will hit you. Even if you didn’t help to prove your error, you would be in the line of fire, because these people mean you, and have noticed you have moved on. So your error will become, for them, evidence for their intolerance of what they regard as your lack of manners, and their antipathy toward you will only grow.
Competing in a dialogue between ourselves and other people of our own level of competence is pointless. Unless, that is, we are being corrected, and we are making our effort to persuade or agree, and even if we are, still making our own efforts to be convincing or convincing. Unless we are being informed and helped to make sense of our flaws, and made to appreciate that we both have terrible grammar, or bad spelling, or bad grammar, or bad spelling, we cannot arrive at any real understanding.
In the end, these are simply the materials of language. Basic phrases can be exploited and abused. A mighty misunderstanding can be made possible. I have heard many of my classmates use several perfectly good phrases in their argument, and all with the intention of using them on the next person, and each with the intention of making those words matter. But all of them involve mistakes, words that fail to command respect.
Photo by D. Hoadley via Unsplash