I judge you when you are ungrammatical

A few weeks ago there was an article in the New York Times about grammar. Specifically, how young people these days are really holding high the banner of the tradition of our language and isn't amazing how that facebook thing has a group that is devoted to grammar, and why don't these whippersnappers stay off my lawn and in my day we walked uphill to pay half a penny for a piece of lint etc.

The gist: Grammar is hip among the youth! Who'da thunk?

But the thing is this: these phrases appear in the article:

good grammar (3x)
poor grammar (2x)

They are used in the following contexts: quoted individuals, names of pro-grammar organizations, and the author himself discussing grammar.

Bob Morris, you seem like a smart enough dude. New York Times copyediting team, I would not imagine that you are any sort of collection of fools at all. So tell me, please please please please, how is it possible that none of you know that "grammar" is not a word that can be qualitatively modified?!?

A quick lesson. This sentence

Most writers for the New York Times is not morons.

is incorrect. It is ungrammatical. It does not use "poor grammar" or "bad grammar." It does not use grammar at all.

Let's say you are playing tennis with your butler. Let's say your butler responds to your second serve (you faulted on the first by stepping over the line) by placing his racquet on the clay and then brewing you a cup of tea, which he serves you with butter cookies. Is your butler using the rules of tennis? No. He might be doing something quite lovely, you might be very thirsty for tea, but he is not using the rules of tennis. He is not using poor rules of tennis. He is just not using the rules at all.

"Grammar" is the word we assign to the set of rules that governs the placement and interaction of words in a language, much like we say "the rules of tennis" to refer to, well, the rules of tennis. In either speech or tennis, you are either playing by the rules, or you're not.

In summary:
You cannot use poor grammar. You can only be ungrammatical.

In further summary:
"Poor grammar" is, itself, ungrammatical.

In final summary:
You are probably sitting here thinking "Helen, holy crap, you are an obnoxious and sanctimonious person." Okay. Those are probably true. But as the facebook group (of which, despite its titular [hee hee "titular"] flaws, I am a member) says: I judge you when you use poor grammar. Consider yourself warned.

Update: The argument continues...


Marcin said...

You're wrong. By the same argument, if you make cheese so badly that it isn't cheese, that isn't making cheese badly. However, anyone who is not a moron or incapable of speaking English at all would understand that to be a meaningful characterisation.

The reason is that your argument is stupid. I'm not even going to attempt to explain why, as I do not cast pearls before swine.

Marcin said...

Also, what's a "titlular?"

helen said...

You're right that people understand the meaning of "poor grammar," Marcin. But comprehension is not an exclusive property of correct usage.

Grammar is a strictly defined set of rules (though blah blah is always changing) and if you violate the rules, you are ergo not playing by the rules. Being ungrammatical does not mean you have strayed so far from the rules that your string of words resembles a randomization sequence. It simply means that a rule has been broken. "Grammatical" sentences are perfect, and anything that is not perfect is ungrammatical.

It's a binary set. There is no gray area.

Marcin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
a lady said...

you do realize that I will be printing this out and distributing it to all my writing students two years from now, don't you?

Anonymous said...

So is there such a thing as poor spelling?

-j. said...

Man, do I hate when my butler does that.

Marcin said...

Even if you restate your argument delete my comments, your analogies are still specious, and your argument entirely without any merit.

Marcin said...

Oh, and it doesn't change the existence of the undisclosed edits.

helen said...

How is my argument without merit, Marcin? Saying I'm wrong over and over is one thing, but some substance would help make this more of a discourse.

The edit: a fixed typo.

Mr Phipps said...

good grammar. one who give you $20 when you visit.

poor grammar. one who does not.

Avitable said...

I'd disagree with your example for the reason that there is grammar usage in the sentence as well.

So if the remainder of the sentence follows grammatical rules but the verb doesn't, I think calling that "poor grammar usage" makes sense.

meredith said...

vaguely relevant, i used to call my dad's mom "grammer" on occasion.

Marcin said...

It is usual practice amongst the more reputable bloggers to disclose edits in the body of the post, not to edit the body, then separately leave a comment.

I won't be advancing any arguments beyond my first one noting that your argument could - ludicrously - be applied to anything. This is for the same reason that I would not argue with anyone who had claimed to have squared the circle: it lends spurious stature to transparent idiocy.

Avitable said...

Marcin, how is it that you determine what is regular practice by reputable bloggers?

A blog post can be an ever-evolving thing, and disclosing edits is not at all required. That's just pedantic.

You're an idiot.

-j. said...

Meredith: was she poor?

Marcin said...

Avitable: because I read blogs by people who have manners, and because I've seen what happens when bloggers do not disclose edits.

Perhaps when you get out of the world of moustache-fandom you'll learn about the importance of references to a particular text.

I doubt that you'll ever learn about manners.

Avitable said...


As an attorney who has written law review articles and other publications and has forgotten more about referencing and citation than you'll ever know, I understand the importance of doing so for formal writing.

Personal blogging is not formal writing. It is decidedly informal, and if someone wants to edit their own writing on a blog and not disclose it, they have that right. Editing someone else's comments or someone else's words is, of course, inappropriate, but that's not what we're discussing here.

And invoking manners is a way for small, petty morons such as yourself to feel superior to someone else, which is, in and of itself, bad manners.

Miss Britt said...

Who knew that writing a post about grammar would bring about hate comments?

I can write about religion and politics and parenting and still not get hate comments.

I am impressed. By Helen, not by the hateful commenter.

(I also agree that in this particular case, the argument for grammar being an all or nothing concept makes sense.)

Anonymous said...


As a rentboy who has written numerous Craigslist ads and forgotten more about pr0n-speak and handkerchief codes than you will ever know, I understand the importance in being polite in speaking over the Internet.

It is important to accurately use the Bluebook and cite the appropriate page of the Federal Reporter when writing a legal brief. It is also important to be respectful online, and one way to do so is not to change a post so as to make a comment made in response to the original post seem dumb.

And complaining about other people being small, petty morons for invoking manners is, in and of itself, reflective of the bad manners of a small, petty person.

Miss Britt said...

Not to be a blog etiquette stickler here, but I think posting comments anonymously is also frowned upon.

I mean, you know, by the Reputable Blogger Set anyway.

meredith said...

-j. - actually, for the majority of her life, she was! poor poor grammer.

brj said...


This, like most of your posts, is quite rad. A quick question/quibble, though. I'm not sure your sentence about the NYT times writers really proves your point entirely. Grammar is a set of rules; a mistake in one of those rules doesn't mean that the sentence "does not use grammar at all," no? Or is it entirely binary and one grammatical slip-up renders the whole sentence/article/book devoid of grammar? For example, using writers and morons follows the rules of grammar because they agree in their plurality. Just like in your tennis/butler example, part of the game followed the rules (the fault followed by the second serve) and part did not (the tea and cookies interlude). Does that mean that the entire match was not played by the rules of tennis?

Anyhoo, keep kicking ass with the snobbery and the cookies.

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