You have the right to use English

My name is not Friday. I don’t carry a badge.

Yes, I have been the go-to guy for grammar, usage, and house style at The Baltimore Sun for more than a quarter-century, but I am not a grammar cop. I am instead a reasonable, informed prescriptivist who knows when to stop.


A colleague drew my attention to a Twitter feed called Grammar Police: “We are the Grammar Police! We’re here to improve the grammatical accuracy of tweets on Twitter. Our motto is “to correct and serve”. We’re ALWAYS watching.” (Except when, in U.S. usage, the period goes inside the quotation marks.)

First tweet I noticed was a guy looking to whinge about Twitter’s “Who to follow” instead of “Whom to follow.” Not having much use for sterile self-congratulatory pedantry, I took my leave of the site and don’t intend to return.

Another colleague came across a site indicating grammar topics with a “G” logo, the letter stylized to resemble a swastika, inside a white circle inside a red square. Feh. I don’t have much use for self-proclaimed “grammar Nazis,” either, even when they claim they are innocuously echoing the “soup Nazi” on Seinfeld.

My working principle is that only Jews get to make fun of Nazis, and even then preferably Mel Brooks.

Most of this tribe of kvetchers appears to be devoted to plucking the lowest of low-hanging fruit, without regard to the complexities of register and the evolution of the language beyond the oversimplifications and superstitions about language they picked up in English class during puberty.

A colleague got in touch today to inquire: “I have come to the conclusion, relatively late in this editing jank, that style should be small enough to be easily manageable, mostly necessary consistencies and useful distinctions. Anything more turns editors into prescriptive automatons who handle copy without improving it, fixated as they are on the picayune rather than challenging turgidity, rampant verbosity, gracelessness and plain old illogic.”

He has a point. I look back with regret at the years I spent enforcing misguided AP style rules or maintaining gossamer distinctions instead of forthrightly challenging cliche and shallowness.

This week the Guardian posted an article by David Shariatmadari, “Why it’s time to stop worrying about the English language,” which, if attended to, would silence a good deal of the uninformed carping that litters the internet. (Spoiler: English is in rude good health, thank you; stop fretting.)

About that parenthetical snark above about Grammar Police: Though not a grammar policeman, I do occasionally make a citizen’s arrest of bogus authorities.