Are you a member of the grammar police? Some people act like their job is to pounce if someone makes a mistake in writing or speaking. Others people think spelling and grammar matter so little that they don’t even care about the errors in their own work. However, the most sensible approach lies somewhere in between.
During the early days of computing, internet pioneer Jon Postel famously declared the robustness principle: “Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.” Some contemporary programmers have critiqued this idea as a guideline for designing software. It is, however, a good guideline when it comes to grammar.
Be liberal in terms of the grammatical errors you accept from others – in other words, be forgiving when someone makes a mistake. Of course, there are situations in which grammatical errors are signs of sloppiness, and you have a right to complain when someone is not taking their work with you seriously.
In many situations, however, grammatical errors are a sign that someone is working with a disadvantage. Some people have learning disabilities that prevent them from writing or speaking according to conventions. Others were raised speaking languages other than English, or varieties of English other than the dominant ones. Some may not have had the opportunity to pursue formal education. Policing the speech or writing of such individuals does not make you a guardian of the English language. It just makes you rude.
At the same time, attention to grammar and spelling is an important component of elegant and professional writing. This is where being “conservative in what you do” comes in.
In most situations, you shouldn’t police other people’s grammar and spelling – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t polish your own. You have control over your own writing, and in many cases, you should work to make it as free of grammatical errors as possible. Disabilities, unfamiliarity with dominant forms of English, and/or lack of formal education may or may not make it harder for you to polish your grammar. However, regardless of your situation, you can work towards your personal potential – and you can be conservative with yourself by making sure that you’re doing your best.
Sometimes, especially in creative writing, you may want to break the rules deliberately and be the grammar police. Of course, if you have a good reason to do so, this is fine. However, in other situations, it is important to conform to the standard. This can make your writing easier to understand, and it sends the message that you are an expert.
Everyone makes mistakes in writing. Even if you think of yourself as a grammar whiz, you shouldn’t get up on your high horse in case you fall victim to Murphy’s Law: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”
Besides, chances are you don’t know everything about English grammar. In fact, many common complaints supposedly about bad grammar are, technically, not about grammatical at all. For instance, many online lists of “most common grammatical errors” complain about things like split infinitives and the phrase “different than.” Apparently, the authors of these lists are unaware that the supposed reasons to avoid split infinitives and phrases like “different than” are shaky at best.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having preferences, and if you don’t like the sound of split infinitives or certain phrases, then it is definitely within your rights to say so. The problem is when you say that your preference is right and anything that deviates from it is wrong. Not only does this spread inaccurate ideas about how English works, but it also makes you look ignorant to people who have studied linguistics and have a stronger grasp on how grammar works.
Besides, good writing is so much more than just not violating a bunch of rules. It’s about actively crafting texts that are meaningful both to you and to your audience. You can follow all the conventions perfectly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your writing is good.
Still, following the conventions can help. If you want to be conservative with your own writing but aren’t sure where to start, check out some other eType posts for guidelines on how to do so. Just promise not to yell at other people if they don’t do the same.