I seem to have gotten a reputation as the grammar police. Sometimes I get the impression that people – even my friends, or maybe especially my friends – fear that I am going to rap them on the knuckles with a ruler if they so much as let a single participle dangle.
While it is true that I will judge you for a misplaced apostrophe, and have gone on record as saying so, I won’t judge you for the more subtle points of grammar. I am not a grammatical scholar. I read an incredible amount, and always have, and I love words and the way they work. I like the precision that language can produce if you use it properly. I mess it up from time to time, but I try, and theoretically I keep on learning.
No, it is only the things that I think every literate person over the age of 12 should know that I am going to judge you for. The things for which there can be no argument, and for which there are simple rules. An apostrophe s makes a word possessive, not plural. My family is the Duff family. We are the Duffs. If you send us a letter to the Duff’s, it will peel back the enamel on my teeth. ‘They’re’ means they are. ‘There’ refers to a location that isn’t here. ‘Their’ means belonging to them. Always. It’s means ‘it is,’ every single time. “Its,” means belonging to them, despite the lack of an apostrophe, and since it is the single exception to that rule, you can go ahead and remember it now.
Also, it is nice to have a verb in a sentence, and somewhere in there should be some kind of indication of who or what is taking the action in that verb.
It also depends upon the context. If you show me a brief you have written to the Supreme Court trying to convince them of the wisdom of your position, you’d better have every comma expertly placed. If you show me a text message you sent from a virtual keyboard while the sun was glaring on the screen and autocorrect was being particularly impish that day, as long as what you wrote is generally comprehensible, it is ok by me.
Typos are not the same as grammatical mistakes. Typos happen. They happen often. I type “teh” nearly as often as I type “the.” Given the number of typewritten communications your average grownup is expected to send in any given day, if you stopped to proofread everything you’d never get anything done. You pick the important ones, and fix those. Likewise, spelling errors happen sometimes. I’m not talking about your basic vocabulary words, but words that are semi-common but aren’t commonly spelled. Like ‘diarrhea,’ which I have to look up every time I spell it, not that I spell it all that often, thank goodness. I can never remember if the word for our local law enforcement guys is Sheriff or Sherrif. (It’s sheriff.) Or if it is personnel or personell. (It’s personnel. Don’t worry – it isn’t personal.)
Frankly, I think anything thumb-typed on a keyboard smaller than the human hand is forgiveable. My hands are enormous, and in addition to having thick, manly fingers I also have a movement disorder called essential tremor. This is a mostly benign disorder that makes my extremities shake when the muscles are engaged. Like when I am trying to use my finger muscles to aim directly at tiny buttons the size of Rice Krispies ™ to type letters at a speed that matches the speed of that pterodactyl with a hammer and chisel on the Flintstones. This on top of the fact that autocorrect consistently insists that my daughter’s name is “Martin” and that a commonly uttered expression of mine indicating shock and surprise is “Hot Danny!”
Also, I’m aware that I am a big fat nerd. I’m proud of this fact, but I also recognize that nerd-speak can be socially off-putting. So a lot of times, when I’m talking (and in many contexts I consider writing ‘talking’) I purposely use more casual grammar so that I don’t sound like the prig it is very easy for me to sound like. “My son is taller than I” makes me sound like I drink tea every day at three pm precisely with my pinky dutifully held high in the air as I look down my nose at the common folk. “My son is taller than me” makes me sound more like a normal human.
I tell you this not necessarily so that you know that I’m not judging you for saying “me” instead of “I” or for ending a sentence with a preposition. (As Winston Churchill once said to make the point I was making in the above paragraph, “Poor grammar is a habit up with which I will not put.”) No, I’m telling you this to take the pressure off me, so I will quit getting triumphant emails from people who have ‘caught’ me making a mistake.
It happens. (Not happen’s. That should never happen.)
Lori B. Duff is the author of the Amazon ‘Hot New Release’ Mismatched Shoes and Upside Down Pizza, a collection of autobiographical humor essays. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriBDuff and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/loribduffauthor