Linguistics for Writers: An Introduction

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

~Alexander Pope

I try to obey one basic philosophy when it comes to grammar and usage mistakes: “Be gentle with others; be strict with yourself.”

Once upon a time, some Germanic tribes invaded an island and ran its native population to the extremities. They built strongholds, and hundreds of years passed, and foreigners conquered and joined with them and eventually their manner of speaking evolved into this language we call English. Somewhere in the 1400s, a dude name Caxton brought a Gutenberg press to the island, and books were published, and spelling became standardized (sort of), and a couple hundred or so years after that, grammarians came along and decided to codify the language according to Latin and Greek (because that totes makes sense, it being Germanic in its roots and all) and forbade some perfectly functional structures and further created hierarchies of worth that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

These days, most anyone who earned more than a C+ in freshman English seems to think that a wi-fi connection is the only authorization required to become a member of the Grammar Police. We engage in conversations with people we’ll never meet face to face and have the audacity to correct the smallest of errors, as though we alone hold off an entropic linguistic descent into primitive grunts and howls.

But really, who among us is perfect in all things typographical? I know I’m not.

Sometimes I like to imagine the Grammar Police of Ages Past having conniptions over language change. (E.g., circa 1600: “You cretin! ‘Its’ is not a word! How dare you malign our language and the usage thereof!”) If there’s one constant in language, it’s change. Everything goes in cycles, and while the written word has done much to slow those cycles, it will never actually bring them to a full stop (nor should it).

“Where we came from and where we’re going don’t matter,” mutters someone in the peanut gallery. “This is how we talk now, and people should know proper grammar!”

Well, my dear complainer, you’re right. Sort of. See, “how we talk” includes all of the errors you’re trying to eliminate. Language is part of identity and reflects the socialization of its speaker. But, on the other side of that coin, language is also a standard by which we judge one another. Ergo, if you want people to take you seriously, you must speak seriously.

Once, in my Internet lurkings, I came across an amateur writer who was expressing frustration with people constantly correcting her typographical errors (it was a “their/there” issue, as I recall). The basic gist of her rant was, “It doesn’t matter if I make mistakes, because when I become a professional writer, I’ll have an editor to make those corrections for me.”

I’m no prescriptivist, but I was appalled.

You see, while I’m open-minded about usage and try to be forgiving when it comes to typos, the very idea of sloppy writing simply because the writer can’t be bothered to apply the restricted codes of English grammar and orthography dismays me. You want to write, but you have no interest in the inner workings of your craft? That’s like a painter refusing to learn the difference between acrylics and oils. “I’ll just use whichever one I feel like at the time. It’s my way of being creative! Besides, someone else can play cleanup if I’m wrong.”


Casual usage is one thing, but serious usage deserves serious understanding. You have to know the rules if you want to break them effectively. Maybe that makes me a grammar snob of worse proportion than any armchair prescriptivist that trolls the Internet. So be it.

But here I revisit my philosophy: “Be gentle with others; be strict with yourself.”

I didn’t call that writer to the carpet. I didn’t even comment on the thread. I don’t know what’s become of her in the interim between that rant and the present day, but I do hope that at some point she realized the value of being accountable for her grammar and usage. Perpetuating such a simple mistake only impressed upon her audience a persona of unprofessionalism and inexperience.

We don’t have to be perfect grammar experts, but as writers, we should always be learning. The rules as they stand are worth knowing well; conversely, shallow knowledge over time will only hurt us in the end. That might seem like a harsh proclamation to some, but I believe it is true. Ignorance restricts ability, and what greater hurt can there be than to fall short of one’s full potential?

So, this was all a really long introduction to say that, in my endeavor to keep learning, I’m going to write a series of posts dealing with language structure and usage. I call it “Linguistics for Writers.”

I won’t pretend to be a definitive expert. This project is as much to cement my understanding as it is to provide information to anyone else. Post may range from the simplistic to the complex as I catalogue my understanding of language structure and how it relates to the writing process. Take it for what it’s worth: the ramblings of one Internet user.

But please do remember: “Be gentle with others; be strict with yourself.” We’re all still learning here.