Monday, May 29, 2006

True Confessions of a Grammar Snob

For as long as I can remember, grammar mistakes (including my own) have registered with me, just as dissonant chords would. They are certainly not limited to the uneducated – I have heard rabbis, published authors, and plenty of others in high positions say things that set my grammar radar on high alert.

When we learned about subjects and objects in the fourth grade, grammar started to make sense to me. And even though a response of “This is she” to the question “May I speak to Ms. ____” sounded ridiculous, I could understand why it was correct. However, this stilted use of the word “she” is the very lesson that caused the most common grammar mistake that I hear today:

Which statements are grammatically correct?

(1) Jane gave the book to Ellen and I.
(2) Jane gave the book to Ellen and me.
(3) Jane gave the book to her and me.
(4) Jane gave the book to she and I.

The middle two are correct, although there are many people out there who use the first one in particular all the time. You can figure it out by breaking the sentence into smaller pieces and realizing that the only things that sound right are “to Ellen”, “to her”, and “to me”.

After my friend FL spent one semester at Vassar, she came back to our small town in the Deep South and informed us that our iced tea was no long “real good”, but rather that it was “really good.” Our teachers had spent so much energy trying to convince children to give up on “ain’t” that they had skipped over some of the finer things like adverbs. I still make this mistake sometimes, but I think of FL every time I do.

I’m not such a purist that I am offended when I hear a mistake. My immediate family will tease each other about mistakes. They especially love to jump on mine. My husband and I are of such a like craziness about this that during a lecture our eyebrows both go up at the same time when the speaker makes a grammar mistake.

This all starts to sound like a bunch of hooey when you consider that the goal is communication – making yourself understood. And whether you use the subjective or objective form of a pronoun is not at all important if the message comes across. In fact, there are times when the intent conveys the correct meaning when we don’t use the right words at all.

So this grammar thing is simply a game that lets me think about words, that lets me diagram sentences in my head, that tests this language which has more exceptions than rules. But for the most part grammar itself had no exceptions, just occasional mistakes.

Are you a grammar snob? Or have you learned to focus on the intent?


Blogger Kate said...

I admit I am a grammar snob but like you and David I contain my snobbishness to raised eyebrows. What really raises my hackles are misspellings. Although I comprehend what most people write, my red pen keeps poised itching to edit.



10:23 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

I am a grammar snob, and I vote.

How about people who use "bring" instead of "take" ?? That one grinds on my nerves.

Or ... using the word "that" unnecessarily? Actually I have this problem, but I try to remove the superfluous "that"s from my blog posts whenever possible.

Barbara, you are so Jewish!

4:35 PM  
Blogger RennyBA said...

As a Norwegian, I don't know if I have anything to ad in this, but I do the best I can in my blog :-)

5:20 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kate, Reya -- I had a feeling we would agree on this! It's interesting to Google "grammar mistakes" and see the variety of ways people can screw up this language. (Reya -- I just went back and edited a "that" out of my comment...)

Renny -- You are excused for any grammar mistakes you make in English since Norwegian is your native language!

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Pagan Marbury said...

I am a grammar snob (as is my husband). I spend lots of time wordsmithing my blog posts- sometimes I republish my blog several time before I get it that way I want it. Some people get annoyed at the reposting (with respect to feeds) but if something is out there under my name, I want it to be perfect.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Velvet said...

Hee hee. You should try living in the south. Three years in Atlanta, and I remember being at work and hearing this:

"Gina don't know how to do that."

Or at my boyfriends house and hearing this:

"We's standing there, and...."

After that, I can overlook some of the other ones, because I think of the south and sigh, I'm good.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pagan -- I understand exactly your concern about publishing posts containing errors. I do it all the time and then cringe and wonder who has already noticed my stupidity before I discovered it myself.

Velvet -- You forget that I grew up in the South. I grew up with a whole town of people who spoke exactly like your quotes. I can still find my southern accent if I search hard enough, but I can never bring myself to use some of those other phrases that conjure up hot muggy nights with lots of mosquitos. However, the beach was nice and I miss it...

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Pagan Marbury said...

I grew up in the south too! (GRITS-girls raised in the south). My biggest problem is with the word "y'all". "Y'all" is perfectly correct- it is a contraction of you all, which serves as the second person plural in the English language. Some people say "y'all" is singular and "all y'all" is plural, but they don't quite get it. (It's like when yankees try to say New Orleans like N'Awlins. That makes me cringe everytime- the southern pronunciation is more subtle).

My ex boyfriend's mother was from snooty Philadelphia and she thought saying "y'all" was like saying "ain't", and her position was that using "y'all" made southerners sound ignorant. Fortunately we had a great relationship, and we had many great conversations about language and regional dialect. She eventually saw the light about the functionality of the word y'all.

Have any of you run into this problem?

12:31 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Y'all was just a mainstay in southern vocabulary, much as was "Yes mam" and "No mam", which my friends' parents often insisted on. My parents were northerners who blended but didn't emulate, so there were no mams or sirs in my vocabulary. In fact, I once got in big-time trouble for calling one of my mother's friends by her first name. I was never so happy as the day I headed north and bade the south farewell except for an occasional visit. I still miss the beach and the sun that gave me skin cancer as I applied layers of cocoa butter and fried to a bright red.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You missed a possible answer in your multiple choice:

(5) Jane gave the book to Ellen and myself.

My boyfriend uses that one. It drives me up the wall!

12:39 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Anonymous -- I agree with you. That strikes me just about the same way as "the both of us" does!

2:26 PM  

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