Many people assume I am a guardian of grammar. The typical plane-ride conversation goes like this: “What do you do?”” “I am an English professor” “Oh! I better watch my grammar.”
Their worries are unfounded. I wouldn't flinch if they were to split an infinitive, use the singular "they," or dangle modifiers. I don't get huffy when I read grammatical mistakes in blogs—and I certainly don't care when I see them on Twitter. So when The New York Times ran a lengthy article about grammar trolls on Twitter, I could only think of the wasted column inches. John Cusack misspells "breakfast"; "your" is used instead of "you’re"; semi-colons are used with dependent clauses. Does it really matter?
To many it does. GrammarCop (@GrammarCop) corrects people's tweets, but a common error GrammarCop likes to correct is the misspelling of grammar as "grammer," which is not a grammatical mistake but a spelling one. YourorYoure (@YouorYoure) jumps on those who mistake one word for the other by reposting tweets placing "[Wrong!]" in front of them—but drops the apostrophe in "you're" in his or her handle. YouorYoure's profile sends you to a webpage that explains the rule.
Nothing elicits comments like a story on grammar (are you composing your response to me right now? Does it begin "You are an idiot"?). William Safire has said that his column that inspired the most reader letters was a piece about grammar. Joseph Epstein has a column in the Weekly Standard on the long letters readers used to send him pointing out typos and errors in his books. And the Times article was quickly weighed down with 135 “Yeah! I hate bad grammar!” and “We are all becoming illiterate” comments.
Language is a means to communication. Grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation have developed over time to ensure intelligibility. Rules change as cultures and people do. Why can’t we split infinitives? The rule against split infinitives was invented in 1834, when a writer for New-England Magazine noted that people were beginning to split infinitives, and told them not to: “To, which comes before the verb in the infinitive mode, must not be separated from it by the intervention of an adverb.” As Jack Lynch writes in his excellent book The Lexicographer’s Dilemna: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English from Shakespeare To South Park, the author of that rule supplied no reason why splitting infinitives was wrong. It may be because he was imposing Latin rules onto English (in Latin verbs in the infinitive are only one word, not two), or it may have been a way to mark social class and separate oneself from the infinitive-splitting rabble. Truth is, there was, and remains, no good reason why splitting infinitives is wrong.
All grammatical rules are like the one against split infinitives: They are all manmade. So too are spelling conventions. Some make little sense. Why does “receipt” have a “p” in it whereas “deceit” and “conceit” do not? Why do we abbreviate “shall not” as “shan’t” if an apostrophe is supposed to replace one missing letter, as in “don’t”?
What interests me about grammatical and other “mistakes” on Twitter is what they signal about our changing culture—a thread of inquiry entirely absent in the Times article. John Cusack spelled “breakfast” as “breakfasy.” Why this error? Surely not because he cannot spell—no one confuses “t” for “y.” But look at your nearest keyboard: The two letters are next to each other on the keyboard, and Cusack clearly mis-hit the keys. QWERTY keyboards were developed in order to prevent exactly these sorts of mistakes on the typewriter—the letters are spaced so to avoid common letter pairs hitting the carriage at the same time. When we hit the digital age, we kept the typewriter-based keyboard. So now we make new errors.
Cusack’s misspelling indicates an out-moded keyboard layout, not a reigning illiteracy. The loss of apostrophes and "e"s—your for you’re—is another smartphone-created change. I have myself sometimes sent a text message using “your” when I knew it was wrong because I was too impatient to figure out how to get my iPhone to do an apostrophe—and I knew the messagee would get my message.
We are living in a moment of seismic linguistic change, and attention should be paid—but not to errors. Our changing language signals evolution, not degradation. "OK," the most popular American word in the world, was invented during the age of the telegraph, because it was concise. No one considers it, or the abbreviations ASAP or Ph.D. , a sign of corruption anymore. Someday, there may be only one way to spell “your;” someday, The New York Times may use “fwiw” without irony. And who knows? One morning in America, we might all awake to breakfasy.