Is correct grammar always correct?

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If you love impeccable grammar and feel conflicted about the song “Blurred Lines”, music parody superstar “Weird Al” Yankovic’s new single is for you. Called “Word Crimes“, it not only lists the verbal abuses of our time, but often corrects them, as well – all to a catchy tune.

It’s well-done and may give listeners hope that “Weird Al” and the musical genius that is producer Pharrell Williams will be able to stop these errors from happening. But some people might just shrug there – er, their – shoulders and wonder why correcting grammar even matters.

There are many reasons, and I could go into them here. Then again, I could also write about why, while I appreciate a grammatically flawless blog post as much as the next person, I’m not one of those people who corrects others – and not just because I’m sure I’ve made at least a few mistakes of my own (sometimes things like lack of sleep, faulty spell-check, or bad habits trump even the best of linguistic intentions). But if, unlike me, you are the kind of person who does reach out and correct people’s grammar mistakes, have you ever stopped to wonder if you’re right?

For example, lots of people think the phrase “my cat and me” is incorrect. It should be “my cat and I”, right? Not always. “My cat and I” works when it’s followed by a verb, i.e. “My cat and I won the pet and owner beauty contest.” But when it follows a verb, or could otherwise be replaced by the pronoun “us”, the “and me” version is actually the right one to use: “Everyone was jealous of my cat and me.”

One common linguistic pet peeve that “Weird Al” addresses in “Word Crimes” is when people say “I could care less”. Most grammar fans will be quick to tell you that, as Al points out, this means you actually do care a little; the correct phrase is “I couldn’t care less”. But actually, this issue has sparked a lot of debate in recent years. After all, could someone saying “I could care less” mean it sarcastically? Even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary has weighed in on the matter, dubbing “I could care less” as an informal, North American form of its officially correct cousin.

Possibly the ultimate tale of the incorrect version of a word triumphing is “O.K.” (You may think I’m not spelling it right — I’ll get to that in a minute.) According to most sources, “O.K.” started out kind of like a “Weird Al” song. In late 1830’s Boston, funny abbreviations were all the rage. “O.K.” was one, short for “Oll Korrect” or some variation of those jokingly misspelled words. It caught on, and people started using “O.K.” everywhere. Today, it’s even insinuated itself into a number of foreign languages. And yet, some people feel a need to insist on how it’s “correctly” spelled or written. Personally, since there is no “correct way” (the whole thing was a joke in the first place), I think the historical way is the right one, if you twist my arm about it – but I’m really okay with you writing it any way you want, as long as I understand what you’re trying to say.

Because, all grammatical precision and egregious word crimes aside, isn’t that what language is really about? We started to talk – and before that to grunt and gesture and such – to communicate with each other. If I understand your blog post or text message, and you’re just writing for fun, why should I correct you? Is the worst offense a misspelling or the misuse of an idiomatic expression? I think it’s someone who writes perfectly correctly, but still can’t get their* point across.

*If you think this should say “his” or “her”, this may interest you.

by Alysa Salzberg

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