First and foremost, I'd like to thank Callum Hackett and Shannon Wittwer for their comments on this piece. You will find a couple of Callum's remarks, which he'd sent to me via email, reproduced in the footnotes. He was kind enough to proffer a few corrections and refinements.
Unless you're Dikembe Mutombo, avoid overwagging that finger.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a Facebook status update that I want to address, if only because it allows for entry into a discussion about grammar, a topic that is widely misunderstood, and often most egregiously by those who fancy themselves grammarians. The post read as follows:
Sometimes! I want, to, read–back someone's? Statement to them, just. The way they've... Punctuated. It.
I want to expound a bit on why I wrote it, because it's really rather easy to be ruthless about language, to harbor an erroneous self-righteousness fueled by one's own presumed linguistic competence. As such, I feel genuinely bad that I may have contributed to an unfortunate tendency many English-major types exhibit: language elitism.
I’m no expert on language, English, or linguistics, first of all, so I am perhaps a bit out of my depth here. However, one of the most beneficial byproducts of having studied writing—an experience which, if you know me, is not one I often recount with dew-eyed fondness, for a number of reasons of varying validity—was an increased appreciation for the inherent ambiguity in language, an appreciation that rendered obvious just how unjustified I had been in acting the grammar scold for so many years prior. I was wrong, plain and simple.
(How did I mean that by the way? Are “wrong, plain and simple” part of a list? Or is “plain and simple” an authorial aside, signaled by a comma? If so, perhaps that last sentence would have been better written as “I was wrong—plain and simple,” or, “I was wrong. Plain and simple.” None of those are correct or incorrect, but you can see quite easily that a couple of options seem to work better than the rest. Why?)
To start, you have to realize that much of grammar you learned in elementary/high school is not "correct." It's not necessarily wrong either, but what was taught to us as a set of hard, fast rules of language were anything but: linguistic "rules" sprout from customs, and customs are subject to change. (In fact, there is no stopping this change.) Language is not math; it is not a logical system. You understand the sentences I am writing simply because thousands of years of ever-changing linguistic tradition (read: common usage) have evolved into the system of word usage and syntax we use today, one system among many hundreds of such systems, and what can be considered grammatical is more properly imagined as a gradient, rather than a set hemmed in by hard boundaries.
One way to look at grammatical as a concept is to say that something which is grammatical can be understood with relative ease without violating common practice in a way that produces friction for the listener. Here is an example:
Zoot and me run the Castle Anthrax.
You probably noticed the problem immediately: me is used in the subject where I would normally be indicated. If you remove “Zoot and,” you’re left with “Me run the Castle Anthrax.” Most likely, if you’re a native English speaker, this formation doesn’t sound very good, and might even conjure an image of a non-native speaker making a rather simple mistake. Therefore, it is ungrammatical. But it’s important to realize that using me in this position is not objectively wrong in any way. Rather, the preference for I in the subject is one based on a custom in which the subjective and objective forms are differentiated, in this case, to signal the nature of the pronoun. Another common couplet of confusion is who/whom, where who is used in the subjective (nominative) case and whom in the objective (dative or accusative). Because this differentiating doesn't do much real work anymore, it is beginning to be sloughed off, and you'll hear things like, "Sir Robin will bravely run away from whoever challenges him," all the time.
Old English (OE), in fact, exhibited a rather complex system of conjugations and declensions—think of the latter as conjugations (inflections) for nouns, pronouns, and adjectives—many of which might seem anathema to us. Yet it is out of this deep tradition that some of our current linguistic customs sprouted, not to mention about 30% of our contemporary words. (The other 70% are drawn from French and Latin, for the most part.) In OE, the form of a pronoun would vary based on grammatical gender, a custom languages like French, Spanish, and German retain; and the form of a noun or adjective would change based on its role in a sentence, rather than its position, in addition to grammatical gender. We still retain certain aspects of grammatical case from these traditions (e.g., children’s is the genitive inflection of children; he/him/his or she/her/hers are all different inflections signaling different information about the pronoun).
Take, also, our basic sentence structure in its simplest form: subject, verb, object. SVO. “King Arthur addressed the old woman.” But, in OE, if you were to tack an introductory clause onto the beginning of that sentence, it may have looked something like, “When he the crone approached, King Arthur addressed the old woman.” SOV. Subject, object, verb. But why? I don’t believe anyone really knows, but that was permissible. In many clauses, dependent or independent, word order could take on either SOV or SVO. Over time, as English changed, SVO and SVC became more prevalent, and Modern English is less flexible with regard to word order. Now, we likely equate SOV structure with archaic language, probably using it occasionally when attempting to affect the speech of a bygone era.
I have digressed somewhat from my main point, but I wanted to demonstrate, in a very brief and simple manner, that the strictures and structures of our language are, in many non-trivial ways, arbitrary. What has produced the emergent phenomenon of intelligible communication via language is practice, not logic or mathematics. And when a person is not careful, they may venture into some unsavory waters, for rooted in much grammar scoldery are a number of potentially injurious biases, among them class-based and racial prejudices against certain writing styles or "errors" and, in oral communication, dialects, accents, or speech patterns. The faulty assumption, of course, is that someone who doesn’t speak or write “properly” must be stupid, but one need think only for a moment to realize that linguistic practice is overwhelmingly predicated upon the linguistic conventions one grew up with during childhood and access (or lack thereof) to institutions that prescribed or taught the standard language. (In the United States the standard language is something close to a Middle American accent—clearly annunciated and adherent to the syntactic traditions in English currently viewed as “proper,” though you could certainly speak in standard grammar using a regional accent. The distinctions between writing and speech, or accent and dialect are important, but for the purposes of this post, I'm more concerned with linguistic practices viewed as unsactionable by presumed authorities and majority groups.)
So why does punctuation work at all?
"If it's not done by sunrise, I'll cut your balls off."
Consider the following two sentences and how they are different:
The centurion saw the young man who was painting the side of Pontius Pilate's palace and thought it best to teach the lad a lesson in Roman grammar.
The centurion saw the young man, who was painting the side of the Pontius Pilate's palace, and thought it best to teach the lad a lesson in Roman grammar.
Obviously, these are very similar sentences, but they are not the same. They are both relative clauses, yes. The first sentence, however, contains a restrictive relative clause (RRC): "who was painting the side of Pontius Pilate's palace." The second contains a nonrestrictive relative clause (NRC) comprised of the exact same words, with the notable difference that they are offset by commas.
In the first sentence, the clause is restrictive because it provides indispensable information about the young man; it actually acts to identify him explicitly, as if to suggest that out of all the young men in the plaza, the young man we are concerned with is the one painting the side of Pilate's palace. You cannot remove this clause without altering the meaning of the sentence.
In the second sentence, the clause is nonrestrictive because it is providing nonessential descriptive information. Implicitly, we already know which young man we're dealing with, but we want to point out that he was painting the side of Pilate's palace, because it provides both extra detail and vividness to the scene as well as context within which we can understand the impetus for the centurion's interference. However, if you removed the clause from this sentence, its basic function would not be changed.
Now, assume you meant to write something more akin to the second example but left out the commas so that your sentence looked like the first. There is, all of a sudden, a disconnect between the message you were attempting to impart as an author and what the reader is likely to interpret as your message. In this case, the risk of being misunderstood is rather trivial: your scene is still mostly intact, and will permit the slight shift in meaning while remaining intelligible.
With this in mind, look back at my original post and consider again why it is so jarring, prompting, as one commenter said, an unpleasant soundspace inside their head. One reason is that, contrary to what we were taught in high school, commas and other punctuation marks do signify pauses. Punctuation is, after all, rhetorical, or should contain a considered rhetorical element if you wish to write well. The standard line we were taught—that punctuation exists primarily to separate sentence constituents—is not the gilded-gold rule it was presented as. It is, however, useful as a general guide, and serves an important purpose, because, yes, knowing how sentence constituents fit together will help you decide how to construct phrases and clauses, how to punctuate them to stress, de-stress, or identify certain elements, and how to decipher what other writers you trust to be thoughtful about their punctuation might mean to say when they decide to punctuate a sentence in a certain way.
Bad punctuation leads to ambiguity, and our customs of punctuating—the common, widespread usage of those customs, that is—allow us to partially focus vague and oblique thoughts into smaller, less variable gradients of meaning. The punctuation in my original post not only violates the customs we are familiar with, it possesses no internal logic of its own. If the word order was not picked carefully, to remain clear despite the strange punctuation, the very meaning of the sentence might be even more difficult to decipher for the reader.
This post was not meant to provide a comprehensive discussion of punctuation, word order, or grammar. Not at all. The examples I've used are extremely simple ones, and you will find examples of more complex variations on these basic structure more numerous than the illustrations I've used here.
I am not above the wave of self-satisfaction that swells as a result of correcting someone's "errors" (which, really, is more akin to identifying inefficiencies or ambiguities, and sometimes, just derivations from the norm), nor am I a model of ego restraint. But I think it is very important to understand what is constructive when it comes to talking about how to use language and what is not, and you need neither to be a linguist nor to understand much more than the basic difference between descriptivism and prescriptivism to appreciate why being a grammar scold is unbecoming for an intelligent, literate person.
Controlling for exposure, do stupid people use poorer grammar than smart people? Maybe, but many smart people use poor grammar too. Practically, it's impossible to generalize. The fact of the matter is that if you grew up and received an education that placed a premium on teaching grammar, you will most likely have a better grasp of the standard language than someone who did not receive such an education or who grew up in a region exhibiting different linguistic practices. You can look no further than American Black English or Appalachian accents for such examples of language traditions that exhibit oft-ridiculed customs and rules of their own, and, hopefully, you can see that grammar scolding becomes quite illogical in light of this evidence.
For an excellent discussion of why, I highly recommend the episode of Slate's excellent podcast Lexicon Valley that features John McWhorter, author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, speaking about why people 1) like to jump all over grammatical mistakes, and 2) should not to be considered savory or helpful for doing so.
The temptation to be a dick about language is strong, and yes, many people probably ought to learn to write more clearly, to acquire a command and an understanding of how language works within the larger system (in the standard language, as well as the push-and-pull between and across dialects). Ambiguity can certainly be detrimental to civil discussion. So too, though, can the militant scold.