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Taming My Inner Grammar Gremlin

Updated: Jun 27, 2018

For an educator and word enthusiast, I am perhaps unusually openminded about grammar.

I do care about it, but in the way one cares about walking. It’s very useful, generally second nature, and only evident as a skill when I'm stumbling up a rocky path or through an awkward sentence. I absorbed it as a child, memorized the finer points under threat of bad grades, and I live with it now. I regularly feel the pressure of prescriptive grammar, wondering if I misplaced a comma or absentmindedly typed the wrong version of "they're."

I grew up in schools that taught prescriptive grammar, and was a rather precocious student. I liked to ask “why?” (both to gain a deeper understanding and, admittedly, to test my teacher and occasionally delay class). When I questioned grammatical rules, I typically heard, “that’s the way it is” or the slightly more descriptive, “that’s the way things developed through history.” I have studied English grammar to find some better answers for myself and my future students.

Though I questioned grammar rules in school, I also obeyed them for the sake of grades and good standing.  When you follow rules long enough, they become second nature. And when you resent rules long enough, but have followed them, a reflexive desire to inflict them on others arises, like some kind of evangelical linguistic puritanism.

A bug-eyed gremlin creature grading a paper with a red pen.

I make errors regularly myself, yet I still cringe at misplaced apostrophes, reflexively question the intelligence of people who make consistent grammar errors, and chuckle about content riddled with basic mistakes. Reason says: “We all make mistakes! They might not have learned that in school!” and “You still understand what they’re saying, don’t you?” However, my inner Grammar Gremlin—a  creature who has grown strong on a diet of red pen and encouragements to spell out numbers under ten—pops up and grumbles, “the person who wrote that must be lazy, or dumb” or “I bet that restaurant with the ‘taco’s’ has been cited by the health department.” Such is life.

I hope I can use my grammatical know-how to help my students, rather than in service of that judgmental gremlin in my head.

How? I will provide standard grammar guidelines so I don’t damage their chances of making it into college, getting a date, or landing a job. Those things matter. However, if there is a convention that one of my students questions, and I can’t prove that it has a purpose, then my students will have my blessing to ignore or edit the rule.

My reasons for this?

  1. To attend to student’s curiosities, criticisms, and concerns.

  2. To show students that convention can be critiqued and renovated.

  3. To foster engagement--challenging tradition can be fun!

  4. To help students embrace useful convention through understanding rather than punishment.

  5. And, finally, to push myself to keep learning about language.

Rather than being a walk in the park or a dusty rule book, grammar is actually something of a battleground. I plan to sit behind “enemy lines” knitting and quietly fomenting rebellion. I try to avoid judging grammaticality based on my limited perception of what “sounds right,” and I actively fight my tendency to link grammatical compliance to status or intelligence. In order to do that, I work to deepen my linguistic understanding. I want to share what I learn with my students so they can ace job interviews and college essays by using “proper grammar.” Once my students have secured jobs or acceptance letters, I hope that they continue critiquing convention outside of school. Maybe they will write new style guides! Maybe they convince their co-workers not to crucify their friend for putting random apostrophe's in his email's! Maybe I’m having delusions of grandeur! Only time will tell.

My inner Grammar Gremlin once dwelt in a dim, cramped cubicle of my brain, chomping on a red pen, ready to pounce on errors and heckle those who make them. He was offered a large supply of blue pen ink, in addition to a more spacious cubical, upon his acceptance of a departmental transfer. He now works with pride in the Editing and Student Grievance Analysis Department of my cranial bureaucracy. I'm sure that he’ll always resent awkward sentences and errant punctuation. However, he has become a thoughtful conservative voice, rounding out editing deliberations. He has contributed to a re-branding of grammar, a new mindset that values it as a tool for intelligibility, rather than as a knuckle-thwacking measuring stick for intelligence and compliance. Last Tuesday, someone ordered "taco's" for the whole department. They were delicious; he didn't even care about the apostrophe.


Revised and republished on 5/6/18.

Previously published in the Spring 2016 issue of Translingual Magazine.

Originally written in 2016 for my English Grammar Concepts and Controversies course.

My thanks to Professor Shawna Shapiro for her wonderful class, and for her help in developing this piece!

#grammar #teaching #linguistics #questions #story

P.S. I don't use Grammarly, nor do I know enough about it to recommend it, but their "Write the Future" ads genuinely make me happy (a rare thing for ads) and the company seems to make grammar an accessible tool rather than some tedious evil thing. So yay that!

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