Why You Shouldn’t Be a Grammar Pedant

Have you ever edited a Wikipedia page? Ten years ago, I contributed to a few articles, mostly the one about Martin Hannett, the music producer known for his work with Joy Division; some of my changes are still there. At the time, Wikipedia was a Wild West of editorials and page-bombs. One of my friends from college made fun of it for its Shirley Temple page, which apparently was vandalized all the time back then.

In 2015, Wikipedia is much more tightly controlled. Tons of pages have the padlock icon on them and the rules for top editors are extensive. Still, there’s still some of that early-day idiocy intermingled with the recent seriousness. Not long ago, I tried to modify the page for the dance-pop band Chromatics, only to have my edits shot down with the helpful comment “Fail.”

Whatever; that barely registers in the landscape of Wikipedia edit wars. I remember Eric Clapton’s page once having, for example, in the first line, his full name followed by the parenthetical “(Not Clapp!)” Pages like the one on criticism of Islam have obviously been extensively edited, with defensive assertions that could probably never be overwritten, no matter the evidence.

Grammatical editing
Given its domain authority and Google’s increasing reliance on it, Wikipedia was always bound to attract a full range of writers and editors. Unfortunately, that crowd includes grammar pedants.

Today there was an article about someone who had made 47,000 edits to English-language Wikipedia pages just to go after the phrase “comprised of,” which is grammatically “wrong” because the “of” isn’t needed and “consists of” conveys the intended meaning. Not only is this individual – a software engineer named Bryan Henderson – a grammar stickler, but he also has an entire, hour-long weekly workflow set aside for the task of removing all instances of “comprised of,” aided by a script he wrote so that he can comb through millions of pages.

This all seems so tiresome. Stephen Fry once narrated a remarkable video demolishing grammar pedant (also known as “grammar hounds “or “grammar nazis”). He bemoaned the joyless relationship that these individuals had with language, how they were essentially caught-up in low-stakes, narcissistic tiffs rather than in any sort of linguistic expression or innovation. He pulled up a great quote from Oscar Wilde, from a note sent by Wilde to his editor:

I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, the wills and shalls, thats and whichs.”

Omg, Oscar Wilde made grammatical errors, right? Writers like William Shakespeare, were they living today, would also have to endure the idiocy of grammar pedants, who would seize upon lines like “There’s daggers in men’s smiles” as a crisis of interpretation. It seems that these pedants miss three things:

  1. Language changes all the time. Shakespeare turned “table” and “chair” into verbs, i.e., “tabling the motion” and “chairing the meeting.” Even words like “cockamamie” are the results of decades of accidental mutation, informed by mispronunciation. Language is not constant and doesn’t even evolve in a predictable way.
  2. Intent matters. It’s one thing to have no idea what someone is talking about because she chose the wrong words (or more likely, the wrong syntax). It’s another to sanctimoniously seize upon the subtle difference between “comprised” and “consists” and try to kill off for this line of linguistic change, when it’s clear what was meant and the “error” was one on par with any of the many made in daily conversation.
  3. There is just no relationship between command of grammar and ability to express oneself well in writing. If someone threw in a “None of these are relevant” into an otherwise good paper, I wouldn’t even care. Plus, who is being hurt by “incorrect” usage of language?

Solutionism and the control of language
The other issue I had with this article – and with the apparently legendary status that this one editor has achieved in the Wikipedia community – was the effects of his script on the otherwise (and perhaps still) tedious task of going after all the “comprised of”‘s in the world. Doing all of this by hand, hunting through each article, would be onerous, which is good! It would discourage people from doing stupid things like, for example, going after instances of “comprised of.”

Scripts, though, make it almost trivial to put all these harmless fires as they crop up. This is the dark side of software. While it makes some tiresome tasks much more easier, to everyone’s benefits (like searching for a recipe), it also makes others easy, to almost everyone’s detriment, like enforcing humorless hobbyist rules about grammar. In these cases, it’s providing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, but no one seems to realize this mismatch since software is always connoted as having the answer to something, a sort of solutionism.

Brief digression: One of the things I always liked about English, compared to, say, French, was its flexibility and lack of central control authority. The language can evolve based on what people actually say, rather than what some academy, whose members’ qualifications may have no overlap with creative or even practical usage of language, prescribes.

Grammar pedants don’t appreciate the organic character of language, which doesn’t surprise me; words, which have the power to reframe conceptions about society (think of the difference between using “the Internet of Things” and, say, “Surveillance Society” to refer to the same phenomenon), are shoehorned by pedants into being predictable tools for control.

The fact that resume are tossed out for typos or grammatical mistakes, and that Internet bandwidth is consumed by someone picking out instances of “comprised of,” is a tragedy and a byproduct of a society that hasn’t been widely educated in “useless” subjects like English or literature. Language is forced to play by the right/wrong rules and binaries of fields like computer science, and as such is diminished. Next time, just let that “comprised of,” “really unique,” or “10 times or less” go.

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