The Grammar Police Gives It a Rest

This one comes to us from a new writer and friend, Emily Sherrod. Deep in the […]

Mockingbird / 2.24.16

This one comes to us from a new writer and friend, Emily Sherrod.


Deep in the recesses of my pajama drawer, there’s a t-shirt featuring a cartoon policeman and the label “grammar police.” It’s a relic from my high school years—when I was a little too proud of my SAT writing scores and all too willing to share my grammar knowledge with anyone around me. It has since been demoted to my pile of never-wear-out-of-the-house clothes.

Since I’ve been working at the writing center at my university, I have had plenty of appointments with students who “just need a grammar check.” As all writing tutors can attest, “just a grammar check” often means “I have structural and content issues that I’m ignoring because I think perfect grammar will instantly get me a good grade.” I understand the incentive. These students are clinging to what they think will earn them an A on their next assignment. What they don’t understand is that you can simultaneously have a grammatically correct and poorly written paper. With some students, no matter how subtly I try to redirect the conversation to some of the larger issues in the paper, they cannot seem to let go of the grammar security blanket.

Don’t misunderstand me. Grammar is extremely important. It’s the law that allows us to express ourselves through writing. But, these days I would gladly trade my “grammar police” label in for the title of “word nerd.” Here’s why.

Words have existed since before time began. Literally. They are God’s chosen means of communication. What an amazing thought: when someone holds a Bible, they hold the tangible words of God. These words are not solely meant for communication, though. They always accomplish something. In Chapter 4 of his book, Prayer, Timothy Keller writes:

a38a50d5a951741660ef0267ef661de4Speech-act theory makes a convincing case that our words not only convey information, they get things done. However, God’s words have power infinitely beyond our own. Timothy Ward’s book Words of Life argues that God’s words are identical with his actions…We humans say, ‘let there be light in this room,’ but then we have to flick a switch or light a candle. Our words need deeds to back them up and can fail to achieve their purposes. God’s words, however, cannot fail their purposes because, for God, speaking and acting are the same things.

When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light. At the power of his words, Jesus calmed storms, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and restored life to the dead. One of his words has more purpose than all of our words combined. Our language, a mere reflection of God’s, is meant to actively work as well. We cannot accomplish what he accomplishes through his words. But, on a much smaller scale, we are meant to take action through our writing. It’s good for us to write about things with meaning—things with content and substance. Painful things. Beautiful things. Graceful things.

In short, words are designed to communicate truth. Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird that “Good writing is about telling the truth.” C.S. Lewis, in Till We Have Faces, writes that “to say the thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that is the whole art and joy of words.”

I’ve come to the conviction that writing should be more about content and less about grammar. We certainly need grammar, but writing is so much more than the laws that confine it. In all honesty, it’s impossible to have perfect grammar anyway. Depending on where you live, what you write, and what circles you run in, the standards for grammar will differ. Thus, there is always a sentence to rephrase, a verb tense to reconsider, or a questionable comma to edit. If you have time, grab a snack, google “oxford comma,” and have fun watching the grammar police of the internet go to battle.

There may very well be grammatical issues in my own work (or this very post!), but perfect grammar does not make a perfect essay. At the end of the day, quibbling over grammar is a lot like focusing on the law instead of the Gospel. I give myself and others grammar grace because the content of the writing fulfills the purpose of grammar–much like the Gospel fulfills the purpose of the Law (Matthew 5:17-18).

c0873f0a63893e10ebc7944f616c8a63The main function of God’s Law is to point us to our need for Christ, the True Word. He lived a life in perfect accordance with the Law and suffered God’s wrath on behalf of His people. Now there is no condemnation for us (Romans 8). When I break his Law and disappoint him, I know that I can find forgiveness. Not only am I forgiven, I am fully loved and accepted. Christ’s perfect record, not my futile attempts to keep the rules, makes me righteous in the sight of God. So, for now, my “grammar police” shirt will stay tucked away in my pajama drawer.