Why is bad grammar so irritating?

Irritating Words and Word Usage provided an irresistable opportunity to sound off about bad grammar, spelling, pronunciation, and any other mangling of language that pisses us off. After the thread had waxed three pages long, hazel-rah posted, “This thread makes me sad. The dictionary is the secular bible, and you’re all bible-thumpers.”

Well, if that’s a sin, I’m definitely guilty. And, in sympathy with my spiritual brothers, the King-James-Onlyists, I even look askance at Merriam Webster’s dictionary, which is more of a chronicle of the slide of American English into a mire of ignorance than an authority on correct usage.

However, this is purely a visceral reaction. Intellectually, I acknowledge that language evolves, and there’s nothing that could be done to stop it. Indeed, it’s healthy for language to change. Who would want to halt the coinage of new words? And, since so-called rules of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation are almost completely arbitrary anyway, why is it a great tragedy if some of those rules mutate? If a child grows up hearing an incorrect usage as often as, or more often than, then correct one, how can he be expected to know the right one? How is it right to sneer at him for getting it wrong?

But why, then, do I find myself assuming that anyone who doesn’t bother to capitalize his email is an irredemable cretin? Why does “Give it to Bob or myself.” make me want to immediately and publically correct the speaker? Why is it that seeing pluralization with an apostrophe-s on a sign makes me want to launch a grenade or a small nuclear missile?

Such errors are the linguistic equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard. Why do the affect us so? I was lucky to grow up in a household where people spoke mostly correct English, so I always got high marks on grammar quizzes and the like. If something was wrong, it screamed out at me like a forgotten flat in a Bach concerto. When I discovered that my own usage was incorrect, I was mortified and began noting the word or rule whenever I saw it, and particularly when used it myself, until the correct usage became second nature and a mistake had begun to grate at my nerves.

Am I just an insufferable prig? If so, it seems I’m not alone. Any language needs some conservative users to enforce standards, arbitary as they may be, to prevent the tongue from becoming unintelligible. But why is it that some people are so, er, vigilant? Why is improper usage so infuriating? Is it something innate in the language centers of our brains? Or is it just a desire to flaunt our own superiority?

(By the way, feel free to point out any grammar and spelling errors in my post. I’m sure I made a few!)

i think some refer to it as being anal retentive.

i have had people get on my case for not using UPPER case in the proper places. sorry, could not care less. these posts are going to scrool into oblivion. when i do a resume for a job the capitalizations are correct.

what matters is the IDEAS in the post. what good is CAPITALIZATION in something not worth reading?

i think it is part of the process of psychological conditioning in an authoritarian society. force the peasants to concentrate on what is NOT IMPORTANT and don’t even tell them what is important.

Dal Timgar

It’s not just about nerve-grating.

If you add up the ink cost’s associated with all those unnecessary apostrophe’s in pluralized word’s, we’re talking about enough money to save hundred’s of kid’s from starvation.


An excellent point, Dal. I suggest you make it your stock response to those who criticize you for incorrect capitalization.

Here’s a perfect example. Because you didn’t capitalize “what” in “what good is . . .”, as I this paragraph the first time, I didn’t realize that you had begun a new sentence. About the time that I hit “CAPITALIZATION” I realized some thing was wrong, so I put on the brakes, started over at “what matters is . . .” and reread more carefully, this time noting the period at the end of the first sentence.

If you had used proper capitlization, I would have been able to read your post more quickly, and would have spent less time floundering because you didn’t bother to use the shift key and more time thinking about what you said. If your primary desire is to communicate ideas, doesn’t it make sense to express them in a format that is easier to read?

Caveat: This is one of those threads where you want to run your posts through a spell check!

A complete disregard for conventions of the written language is likely to be taken for an absence of some quality in the writer. Perhaps lack of respect, lack of intelligence, lack of education, or simple laziness. While it is not guaranteed to be an accurate assumption in every case, it is a completely reasonable one to make for the purposes of selecting what to read, and what to heed among the huge wealth of available written material on line.

Those who write with the purpose of eliciting an exchange, or to present an idea to others would do well to remember that grammar, spelling and punctuation are the garments in which we must dress our ideas. They cost nothing but a bit of effort, and can allow our ideas to enter places where less formal dress would preclude any consideration at all. Likewise, we must remember that formality is not inherently superior. Not every written word must follow every grammarian’s convention.

The language lives, and grows. Ambrose Bierce pointed this out in his definition of dictionary: “n, A record of a moment in the history of a language. Often mistaken by pedants for a rule book.” While it will always remain true these conventions provide the means to make our message clearer, the language is a tool, not a taskmaster.

Shakespeare created words whenever he could not steal one. His work was better for it. However, we should ask ourselves if we have a Dewey Decimal number of our own, before we decide that his example frees us from the benefits of conventional composition.

Why does it hurt your ears? Perhaps it is because you have the sensibilities of pedagogue, and the habits of a grammarian. Or, you might be the Guardian of the Language of the Bard. But you will miss out on a lot if you make it a barrier to the wisdom of the ungrammatical. A simple soul who says: “I be happy.” has not said the same thing you would mean when you say “I am happy.” It isn’t an error, it’s a philosophical journey. Don’t miss those.


If our goal is to communicate, shouldn’t we adopt reasonable measures to avoid unnecessary confusion? Hence the necessity of proper grammar, spelling and punctuation. The argument holds for adopting a pithy writing style.

I’ve often heard people say, “Who cares, as long as I’m communicating?” With all due respect to those persons, I think that attitude is hopelessly naive. It’s not enough to merely communicate. CLARITY in communication is important as well.

So we should have a spellchecking button next to preview reply button:) Even easyboard forums have that.

I am too afraid to post on this thread.
(it is on this thread and not in, right?:))


Post to the thread.


I knew it.
(shoot…am I allowed to use that many question marks?)

Bad grammar grates on my nerves too, but I try to ignore it when possible. While I agree with Triskadecamus that frequent errors may indicate some deficiency in the writer, if what is being said is worthwhile, then so is the effort it might take from the reader to figure out what was meant. So if Collounsbury makes a mistake in his verb subject agreement or something, it’s certainly worth overlooking.

But I also agree with JubilationT. The rules of grammar may have been arrived at arbitrarily, but they are not arbitrary in usage. That said, I think one has to allow for rules being bent/broken/recreated once in awhile. While too much flexibility can make language incomprehensible, granting a little bit can increase the range of possible expression.

And just out of curiosity, Podkayne: What do you think of e.e. cummings?

Oh, and Pod, I don’t know about grammatical errors, but that link you gave is to the message board main page.

The purpose of language is to communicate information. While the rules of language may be arbitrary – spelling, pronunciation and grammar (and I’m not sure so grammar is arbitrary since the basis of it may be hardwired into the brain, but that’s a whole other topic) – they certainly help to achieve clarity of expression and comprehension.

The human consciousness is able to contain a finite number of units of information at a given time. The rules of language are, in effect, filters through which everything we hear and read are strained. We are irritated when, because of its unintentionally distorted form, information doesn’t immediately pass those filters and we have to make a conscious judgement on its intrinsic value, which takes our attention away from whatever we were concentrating on when the filters became clogged.

I’m all for deliberate breaking of the rules in order to force us to think about what we are taking in, or have taken in, as information because its form passed easily through those filters.

Just my take on it,


On previewing I see this:


Poetry is one of things I had in mind. It can act as a kind of hyperlanguage, taking us to places we may never have reached on our own.

Now I’m gonna go play me some 9-ball. 10 bucks a rack, anybody?

Here’s a quote from the Irritating Words thread (Fixed the URL. Thanks for the heads-up!):

e.e. cummings rocks my world. The writer can thoughtfully break the rules for effect, but he must be very careful to remain readable.

Hmm…the difference between someone who can’t be bothered to take 1/8 of a second to hit the shift key versus a master poet who deliberately played with capitalization and pronunciation for effect…

Boy, I’m just torn!

I’m just wondering when dal_timgar is going to come in here and thank Spiritus Mundi for “taking his side.” :slight_smile:

They way I figure it, dal, if you have so little respect for me as a person that you feel the time I have to spend parsing your words is worth less than the time it would take you to type correctly, then I’ll just ignore what you say. M’kay?

Just for the record, here are the ones you got wrong:

irresistable should be irresistible
irredemable should be irredeemable
publically should be publicly
arbitary should be arbitrary

Well, someone had to do it. :wink:


people who don’t understand the logic of proper grammar and punctuation send out memos at work that are incomprehensible, and they never clearly understand anything people send them. this is what i find irritating about it. i agree with the podkayne’s quote. when you know someone has a good grasp on the rules of writing, you can assume they mean what they’ve written, even if the meaning is unusual. with someone who doesn’t understand proper sentence structure, you’re like ‘what the hell is this supposed to mean?’