M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Grammar Day: ‘Correct’ and ‘proper’ aren’t the same thing

with 5 comments

In honor of National Grammar Day, I’m republishing this post from 2011:

National Grammar Day (as proclaimed by the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar) started in March 2008, almost exactly two years after Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet on Twitter.

Putting those events in the same sentence isn’t a non sequitur. Grammar isn’t a simple system, but it’s easy to reduce beliefs about “correct” grammar to simple cris de coeur that fit snugly in Twitter’s 140-character limit. The #language hashtag is an active one, and much of the traffic blares its horns at a misspelling or a grammatical offense that has slipped through to publication. I’ve certainly sped along in its fast lane — #language is littered with my own objections and funny-to-me observations.

Debates over grammar are like debates over the existence of God or what region is home to the best barbecue*. We all have firmly held beliefs, and what makes the debates so fun is that all of us are right and all of us are wrong.

There’s no point rummaging around the descriptivist-vs.-prescriptivist closet; if you’re reading this, you’re already comfortable in there. Instead, I wanted to take a moment to explain why so much of my writing tilts toward traditional formality even though I’m intellectually disposed to argue against rules.

I don’t believe there is any such thing as “correct” grammar. I do, however, believe that there is such a thing as “proper” grammar and that it is inseverable from context.

In any essay like this one, a writer seeks to persuade you to an intellectual point of view by demonstrating a certain level of sophistication. I want you to notice my language choices because I’m writing about language. “Note the complicated sentence structure and the correct use of the semicolon,” I want you to think, followed by: “He must know what he’s talking about.”

That’s quite different from what I hope to accomplish when I write as a journalist. I don’t want you to notice the writing (apart from taking away what I hope is an impression of ineluctable elegance). That writing is much more conversational — idiomatic, even.

And yet, I still insist on distinguishing rigidly between “who” and “whom” and between “that” and “which,” among many other distinctions I observe that linguists and their fans would consider formalistic rules-following.

I do that simply because I have a particular picture of my reader in my mind — or, at least, of who I hope my reader is: educated, well-read, inquisitive enough to insist upon remaining loyal to long-form journalism.

It’s not about whether the objective “who” is right or wrong. It’s about context. I believe that you are of the class of readers who notice things like “who” and “whom” and that because you were educated in a certain way, you are more likely to come to a dead stop — and, perhaps, to lose the narrative train of thought I’m driving — if I write “who to follow.”

Both are “correct.” But only one is “proper” in the context of the stories I tell.


* Eastern North Carolina

Written by Alex

March 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm

5 Responses

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  1. “…and what makes the debates so fun is that all of us right and all of us are wrong.”

    Shouldn’t the end of this sentence have:
    ‘much’ between “…so” and “fun”
    (or ‘such’ instead of “so” + “much”), and ‘are’ between “…all of us” and “right…” ?

    or am I being horribly pedantic (and very English!)

    Debra Pryor

    March 4, 2011 at 5:53 pm

  2. As soon as I posted my comment and the page updated the ‘are’ magically appeared!

    Debra Pryor

    March 4, 2011 at 5:55 pm

  3. BTW I agree, it IS all about context.

    Debra Pryor

    March 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm

  4. I love this piece, start to finish. :) Context is key–which is one of the reasons you’ll never find me picking on the grammatical flubs of strangers in their twitter posts. Most people use twitter in a way that more closely resembles extemporaneous speech, and most extemporaneous speech is disorganized and imprecise at best. When you add the character count restriction and informality (and the fact that so few twitterers have much writing training)…well, picking on the grammar in most tweets seems to be beside the point.

    Long-form journalism, however, is fair game. ;)


    March 5, 2011 at 8:45 am

  5. Thank you for this peace!
    I use “peace” because that is the state of mind it has helped me achieve.
    I work in the IT industry and struggle with poor spelling and grammar; especially on websites and in email communications. (It often sends me insane.)
    This short essay has given me context.
    I give myself permission to be less formal. If the message is understood by the audience – mission accomplished.
    My grammar school English treacher, has no doubt already forgiven me. After all I am evolving :-)


    August 10, 2016 at 2:53 pm

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