American Culture

Its time to rid the English language of it’s outdated grammar and punctuation rules

Grammar nazis may not like it, but many of our language rules are artifacts of ancient languages that no longer serve a meaningful purpose.

I’ve been a writer since the ’70s. I’ve written poetry, fiction, academic, business, political and entertainment pieces. I’ve written for print, broadcast, online, social and mobile. I’ve been responsible for ~2,300 posts at S&R alone (although not all of those were writing – there has been some photography along the way, as well).

I have an undergrad minor in English, an MA in English and a PhD in Communications. I’ve studied lit – lots of lit – composition, creative writing and historical linguistics.

I’ve taught writing at the undergrad and graduate levels – English, comp, marketing and business, you name it.

Malcolm Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours to become an expert at a given thing, and my best guess is that I’ve probably spent twice that amount of time writing.

My point? I know a bit about writing and the English language. Not everything by a long shot, but I do feel I have, at the least, a moderately educated opinion. I’m not a lock-down grammarian like some I know, but I have an ear for things and a deeply informed understanding of what works, what’s efficient, what’s fluid, and what the rules are.

And I stand before you today to offer a modest proposal: Resolved – that we keepers of the sanctity of the language need to let go of some of our most deeply cherished pet peeves. You probably have some peeves of your own and when people violate them it drives you buggy. We all do. But let’s breathe deeply for a moment and ponder the actual value these technicalities have in our lives.

I don’t have time to address all the cases I can think of, but let me use three examples to illustrate my point:

  • there/their/they’re
  • its/it’s
  • you’re/your

Specifically, I propose that the three former cases be replaced by “ther,” to be used interchangeably in all instances. Also, that we kill off “it’s” and use “its” in all instances. Finally, I don’t care how we spell it – I’m good with “yor” – but we need to stop making a big deal about that last one, as well.

Why? You know how your mom would occasionally misspeak and you’d call her on it and she’d say “you know what I meant”? Right. You might write “the dog chased it’s ball,” and I might correct you, but I know what you meant. And that’s the purpose of language: to convey meaning and information, not technicalia arising from ancient rules in proto-languages nobody has ever heard of.

In short: language serves us, not the other way around.

Some linguistic history explains what I’m on about. Sorta.

English, and most of the languages spoken in the Western world today, evolved from a couple branches on the Indo-European tree. German and English, for instance, derived from Old High Germanic, while Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese come to us courtesy of ancient Latin. Along the way English got hijacked by French (courtesy of William the Conqueror), which explains why we have so much Romantic influence on modern English.

Those ancient forebears of our current languages were highly inflected. That is, you’d have root forms of words and a number of endings for tense, singular/plural and the like. If you had all the forms correct, word order probably didn’t matter. In Latin, for instance, you can jumble the words up but the sentence is still comprehensible.

We still have remnants of this functionality in English today. Think about how we conjugate verbs. I run, you ran. I think, you think, he thinks. Arise, arose, arisen. See what I mean?

The thing is, modern English isn’t an inflected language, it’s a synthetic one. This means that while we may still have inflections, our ability to understand meaning relies instead on context and word order. If I write “John run to the house,” you’d know I was saying “John ran to he house” (a lot of people speak this way as it is).

Have a look at this and see if you can sort it out.

Everything direct winter way the to superlative its the good the far was going going authorities darkness before it nothing foolishness belief degree so the us spring only being the before or was age like epoch hope despair all we of epoch of of season was of the for direct the worst for was it light incredulity short of was period it was times comparison its of season it the us period we had was of Heaven it were was of best it in it the we the of we had the some of was were of the present wisdom it all on other in it of evil times insisted was the was age noisiest the it received that.

Literature students might recognize the opening sentence of Tale of Two Cities, but if you didn’t know the passage enough to maybe tweak on a couple specific words, you’d be lost.

The upshot is that our language today incorporates all kinds of artifacts from earlier incarnations of English when the forms were necessary to convey meaning clearly. Now, though, they’re useless appendages we have evolved beyond beyond which we have evolved. These sentences are perfectly comprehensible:

  • Bob and Sally picked up they’re new puppy this morning.
  • The puppy pounced on it’s new toy.
  • The man your looking for is standing over their.
  • Its a beautiful morning, isnt it?
  • Ther goes the smartest kid on campus.

It isn’t like we don’t do this sort of thing every day already. For instance, in this sentence:

Bob and Sally tried to teach the puppy not to bark.

Did you see that last word and get confused about whether it meant the outer layer of a tree trunk?

Is “read” present tense or plural and how do you know?

The tailor is hairy but the furrier is furrier.

Hopefully you get the idea by now. If not, I can go on all day. English is probably the biggest mutt of a language in the world, and many of our forms, usage strictures, punctuation and spelling rules serve no practical purpose.

Beyond, perhaps, allowing that the actual value of an English teacher is nothing more than grammar nazi, or perhaps as a marker of social status?

Think about. Let me know what you conclude.

2 replies »

  1. While I know many would embrace your ideas eagerly, however, I am on the fence. I get a twinge every time I see misuse of there, it’s, etc. I don’t have the education you do, but I have been writing for 30 years, even if it was office letters, documents and reports. I spent 8 years as an editor. I was the go-to person when there was a grammar question.

    I get the reasons to toss out rules that appear to be archaic, but where does it end? Will we be fine with “accidence” vs “accidents”? It seems like opening Pandora’s Box, leading to chaos? I have attempted to read many a letter/email written by someone who knows no grammar or proper punctuation. It is nearly impossible to convey the message. The writer might know what they meant, but the reader is lost.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think it’s best to read this as a conversation starter. On the one hand, the history and linguistics are true, and I’m not the first person to raise the issue of how our language is or is not being allowed to evolve (and in truth, it’s probably the most volatile language in the world thanks to a number of other influences).

      On the other, I’m an admitted elitist of a sort, and a WRITER, and a guy who taught for years. I work with an amazing team of writers, editors and teachers here at S&R, so I’m hardly in favor of unbridled chaos. I would like to see some discussion of how we might clean up the dead artifacts around the margins – things that exist only because, well, they exist – while at the same time preserving the functional character of the language and its rules.

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