A few years ago, I ran across a blog post where the author claimed that those who think that writing well is important sap the life out of creativity. She recounted how she was discouraged from sending a letter to Mad Magazine because her English teacher critiqued it too harshly.
I feel sorry for her that she let one person's comments keep her from doing something that to this day she regrets. How much do we read and hear that if we're really passionate about something we should go ahead and do it anyway? How passionate are you about something if one person can stop you cold? In the words of Scott the Nametag Guy: stand up, speak up, or get shut down.
The blog author cited an excerpt from Stephen King's book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In it, King describes a childhood experience in which he wrote a grisly story that horrified his teacher. Now, the teacher was horrified by the gory stuff that was in the story he wrote, not so much by the bad spelling. What she commented on was the gory details. The blog author tried to use this as an example of how teachers and others shouldn't harp on grammar and spelling and such.
That wasn't King's point. His teacher wanted to know why he was wasting his talents writing like this. Her words (quoted by King): "What I don't understand, Stevie, is why you'd write junk like this in the first place. You're talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?" Not a thing in there about how he shouldn't even attempt writing since he couldn't spell. The teacher admitted that he had an incredible talent.
King goes on to say that he was ashamed of what he had written. Again, not by the bad spelling and grammar, but by the content. He says he spent the next forty years feeling ashamed about what he wrote.
Now that's a great example of how we should just keep on and do what we're meant to do despite what the naysayers say. However, this isn't a good example of how the "grammar Gestapo" should just leave us be.
The blog author made this plea to writers:
Correct English is the worst way to articulate something. If I tell you that at my last family reunion we ran woefully short of poultry due to an equipment malfunction, you don’t understand the situation as well as if I write, “my second cousin told everybody ‘We don’t got no fried chicken ’cuz daddy done broke mamma’s deep fry tryin’ to boil the tar off his lug nuts.'”
I'm sorry; correct English doesn't mean stilted, stuffy, and inflated English. Correct English means using words correctly. Would anyone (even I) actually say, "We ran woefully short of poultry due to an equipment malfunction"? I don't think so.
The final blow for me was "so us writers intentionally ignore the rules and say things like 'the person with a smile on their face' (instead of his or her face) knowing that as enough of us add a gender neutral pronoun to the vernacular, it becomes accepted practice."
We writers do nothing of the kind.
Okay, so let me get this straight. If enough of us say something incorrectly, then the incorrect version becomes correct? Is it just easier to do it incorrectly than to make an effort to do it right? I can think of several ways to avoid the awkwardness of assigning a gender. If you're trying to describe the person with a smile, then I'm betting you know the gender and can just say "the person with a smile on his face." If you're talking in general about a smiling person, then you don't need to point out a specific person; you could say something like "people with smiles on their faces." Or just take the plunge and assign a gender: "The person with a smile on her face." Gasp!!! Can we really do that?
We don't have to be stuck with bad grammar and incorrect pronoun agreement. If you know the correct way to do it, and you do it incorrectly, I think it makes you look lazy. (Now, I'll say right here and now that one can deviate from "proper" grammar and usage for stylistic reasons. Heck, I do it all the time. However, there are some things that just aren't right any way you cut it.) Take the time to do it right.
Epilogue to this story: I ranted about this for several days, and my family absolutely agreed with me about the pronoun agreement. (Smart family.) To explain to my seven-year-old, I used this example: "It's like saying that if enough people declare that 2 + 2 = 5, then 5 becomes an accepted answer." You might think that it's going overboard, but I don't think so. If you have a singular thing, you need a singular pronoun. If you have a plural thing, you need a plural pronoun. How is that different from basic math facts?
My husband's favorite metaphor was this: "If enough people start robbing convenience stores, then 7-Eleven will start giving Slurpees away for free."
Don't count on 7-Eleven giving away Slurpees for free any time soon.
Final Note: This article was written using about 90% correct grammar and usage. I gave myself 10% leeway for the informal and conversational tone of the article. I'm guessing that you were able to understand my writing and didn't feel that the good grammar ruined the story.