The Evolution of Language vs. the Grammar Police

I have to admit that I’m a little torn when it comes to using language correctly. As someone who spends much of his day reading–whether it’s for fun, for information, to grade papers, or to chip away at the ever-growing pile of emails–I appreciate it when people use language well. It makes my job easier, and it causes significantly less angst.

So some part of me wants to insist that everyone use language correctly, particularly those entrusted with communicating God’s truth. I know you can still communicate without necessarily writing well, but good grammar makes it so much more pleasant for everyone else. It’s like having good table manners. You can eat without them, but it’s rather nasty to watch.

But another part of me wants to push back just a bit. Do we always have to use language correctly? That’s a tricky question to answer. And the problem comes from the words “always” and “correctly.”

Good manners are important. But, at the same time, they can be a tad stifling. Sometimes it’s fun to do something unexpected, even unmannerly. I love it when my daughters do something off-the-wall. It adds some color to the world. In the same way, I love it when people use language creatively. Out of the box. Something that will catch my eye, roll it in another direction, and make me see something new.

The rules matter. But let’s not forget that words can be fun.

We also have a problem if we insist that people must always use language “correctly.” Sometimes we forget that language evolves. It’s like the willow tree in my backyard. From one day to the next, it looks pretty much the same. But in just a few years, it can change dramatically, shedding old leaves and sprouting new ones, stretching its slender fingers in unexpected directions. Much to the chagrin of the self-appointed grammar police, those people who seem to read for the sheer pleasure of noticing when someone gets it “wrong,” language evolves.

That’s the point Stephen Fry makes in this great illustrated essay.

So we need to strike a balance. For the most part, we should strive to use language correctly. We all make mistakes, I’ve probably made several in this post alone, but using language correctly is just good manners.

At the same time, we can (and should) use language creatively. That’s the spice that adds flavor and makes writing interesting. Like any spice, though, too much ruins the dish. Don’t overdo it. A pinch of oregano and a little basil should do the trick. And the best advice I’ve heard on this is to make sure you know the rules before you break them creatively. Deviating from the norm is fine, just know that you’re deviating and why you’re deviating. Intentional deviation is the key to creative communication.

Finally, we need to remember that we all use language contextually. Language changes. Resisting that change is like insisting that we should still be wearing powdered wigs and hoop skirts. Don’t be the grammar police.




  1. J says

    I was once corrected during a bible study for saying “I feel so obtuse”….I’m still annoyed after 20 years and can only assume comp sci/engineering/business degrees can be earned without much actual reading.

    However, I cannot get over the use of “I resonate with that” I will always picture the person vibrating like a gong….


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