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Pedant or professional: what does ‘good grammar' really mean?

Grammar Concept
By Alice Wilkinson
03 October 2023
Corporate Reputation

The question of what it means to be a grammar snob has been on my mind a lot lately. With the change of season, I’ve caught myself telling anyone who will listen about the number of times I’ve seen autumn mistakenly written as Autumn on social media today (a mistake that Word no longer tries to correct, I notice) and getting into arguments about proper and common nouns.

When I think about this tendency to grammar snobbery, I find it troubling – and even more so because I know I’m not alone. Being a grammar pedant is a badge many wear with pride, but pedantry in any form should be avoided. As Pippa Bailey wrote in a New Statesman article, “unwavering pedantry is not a love of language, but something uglier: a desire always to be right and to put others down. It is superior and elitist; language not as a means of communication but of status.”

Indeed, what counts as ‘proper English’ is a subject increasingly tied to questions around inclusivity. Judgements about grammar and language are shaped by beliefs about which social groups speak and write in the ‘right’ way, with decisions about what is or is not good English based on the language practices of the white middle classes.

And yet we should be cautious of overcorrecting, of letting the rules go completely in an effort to be more inclusive. A couple of years ago, The Independent published an article about a handful of UK universities that asked their academics to ignore students’ poor spelling and grammar to make assessment more inclusive. Having discovered this, the Office for Students (OfS) hit back, stating that by disregarding students’ technical proficiency in written English, universities were patronising students, whilst also undermining standards and, “public confidence in the value of a degree”.

An OfS representative also pointed out that this kind of a misinterpretation of equality legislation would only serve to place, “new graduates at a disadvantage in the labour market and could leave employers spending time and money training graduates in basic written English”.

Clearly, rules about good grammar serve a real purpose. Without them, we are lost on a sea of words. But how can we adjust our attitude to language to be more inclusive, less rigid, without losing the grammar rules that keep us in check?

It is important to remind ourselves that all language is literally made up; the rules are there to guide us, not restrict us. There is also a difference between being right and being smart: we can use language in a way that is professional, and sensitive to our audiences and subject matter, without having to scour copy for split infinitives and misused semicolons. For me, autumn is autumn, not Autumn, but I must accept that maybe, just maybe, one day no one else will care.