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ty burr

A proper tirade about grammar

It’s not exactly the most pressing issue in American society at the moment, but I’d like to suggest a constitutional amendment to attach a grammar app to all of our online scribblings. E-mail, texting, tweeting, Word documents, Facebook posts — the works. Maybe then we’ll actually understand what everyone is saying.

I say this as a working writer who gets his fair share of reader response in the form of e-mails and online comments, most of it intelligent, some inarticulate, occasionally both; who absorbs the usual torrent of Internet yammerings in the course of a day; who occasionally teaches college students who have made it through 15 years of the American educational system without having the faintest idea of where to put a comma, Oxford or otherwise. And I say this as someone who has his own problems with misplaced modifiers, “effect” versus “affect,” and prepositions you should never end a sentence with.


This week’s tirade is prompted by a day or two of fiddling with Grammarly, an online tool — free for the Chrome browser, available at tiered subscription prices for a variety of other software — that promises to check for 250 common grammatical errors, correct spelling, and “enhance vocabulary usage.” It’s been around since, 2009, and while some people swear by it, its utility is a thing that is not without the issue of problematical functioning as it relates to the proper English of communication. For instance, Grammarly had no problem at all with that last sentence.

What we need, clearly, is a better Grammarly, and we need it now. Normally, I’d be the last person to suggest another electronic nag telling us how to do something, especially since we’ve already accepted so many of them into our lives. Don’t get me started on my anti-GPS rant — oh, never mind, too late. Now that we all have little machines in our cars and in our pockets that tell us how to get from A to B, from our offices to a yard sale in Quincy, we no longer have a need to look at a map. I mean, to sit down and actually study a map in order to divine the best route there and the places through which it passes. We gain efficiency, but we lose context. We get where we’re going, but we miss the world on the way and how it interconnects. We become literally disoriented.


Worse, over time, we lose the ability to situate ourselves in any greater geography — in the life around us — on an individual and cultural basis. The neural connections and storage space your brain doesn’t use, it finds other employment for. All the phone numbers you used to know by heart? Do you even know how to memorize them when you can push a button that says “Mom”? When you can fire texts at people at will, do you lose the ability to compose full, thought-out sentences let alone the eloquence that once came with writing letters? When you type all day, does your penmanship go to hell? Mine sure has.

On one level, this is just a byproduct of human civilization and our knack for outsourcing processes we used to do with our bodies and our minds. Before the development of writing, people kept immense oral histories in their heads to pass along to the generations after them; with the invention of the printed book — essentially an external hard drive for holding data — those cranial muscles became unnecessary. The upshot: You can tell me a reasonably convoluted joke tonight and I probably won’t remember it tomorrow.


So, yes, our inventions giveth and they taketh away. And as much as I fret that our reliance on GPS systems will reduce us to boobs who can’t find our way around the block once the electromagnetic pulse hits, I’m a Waze-addicted hypocrite just like everyone else. When my kids got their driver’s licenses, I bought them each a copy of an Eastern Massachusetts street atlas, which only languished in the back seat well under the Dunkin’ Donuts bags. I might as well have bought them buggy whips.

But a grammar app? I can get behind that all the way because, let’s face it, we could use the help. Nobody knows how to write anymore, and, like most cranks, I blame the last 40 years of elementary and middle school curricula for failing to hammer in the basics of clear, concise communication. The rules, dammit. Didn’t they use to teach sentence diagrams? Isn’t it called grammar school? Whatever happened to “The Elements of Style”? Will you get off my lawn?

You could blame it as well on the rise of instant electronic communications that allow us the shortest route to reading comprehension: F u cn rd ths, u r a nrml Amrcn adlscnt. Who needs adverbs when you have emoji? But, really, I think the culprit is the death of the reading habit on a mass social scale, acquired at an early age and inculcating pliable minds with all the many and beautiful ways in which ideas and emotions can be expressed. We learn well by rote. We learn better, I think, when we’re too engrossed to realize we’re learning.


Or maybe I’m romanticizing some nonexistent era when we all talked like Alfred Lord Tennyson. Maybe the sheer multitude of places to express ourselves in public only reveals the fact that most people just plain suck at grammar. I see it in college papers, yes, but also in blogs and tweets and Facebook postings, in online movie criticism and Amazon user reviews, in public relations documents and corporate news releases. When Fortune 500 companies have to hire English majors to make their executives sound faintly intelligible, it’s time to acknowledge a societal fail.

And there’s the comments section under online articles, the place where grammar and spelling go to die. Maybe because the form seems to prize, uh, passion over diplomacy, comments sections display the English language in full Elizabethan free fall, to the point where the medium often subverts the message. You can hold multiple PhDs, but if you mistake “their” for “there,” “your” for “you’re,” or “definately” for “definitely,” you will sound unlettered and you will have lost your argument before you’ve made it. No, it’s not fair. But it’s a fact of online life.


So bring on the federally required grammar app and strap it to our phones and computers and laptops. That way our ideas will stand or fall on the intelligence or stupidity of what they mean rather than how they sound.

Until then, I’m serious: Get off my lawn.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.