Pretty much every time anyone offers advice about grammar and syntax on the internet, you get the same debate. It involves a few standard arguments, which I will attempt to summarise:

1) “None of these things are actual mistakes, anyone correcting people who makes them is a douchebag.”

2) “Language is in a constant state of flux and we all participate in its evolution. Don’t try to constrain people from creating new words and rules as they go along! Shakespeare invented hundreds of words.”

3) “Your corrections of other people’s grammar contain grammatical mistakes.”

Such is the case with the comment section under this piece, which I had thought actually did a really nice job of explaining why certain commonly found errors are errors, and how we can avoid them. But a lot of people just don’t like that. There was also the inevitable argument about that bizarre piece of American usage, “I could care less.” In fact, this provides just about the perfect example for what I wanted to say about prescriptive and descriptive grammarians.

See, my main beef is with argument 2) above. It’s the argument that says there are no mistakes in grammar, only novel uses of the system, and in time the ones that work will be the ones that become widespread and will be taught in school themselves and yadda yadda. OK. This is true up to a point: when someone comes up with a new way of expressing something that catches on – whether it’s breaking an existing rule or creating a new word or whatever – then the language evolves. But that doesn’t mean you should defend stuff that’s unusefully wrong. To take the example above, “I could care less.” This is a woeful corruption of “I couldn’t care less.” The original expression very clearly conveys that the speaker does not care about the subject under discussion, because the amount they care could not possibly be reduced. Clearly at some point there has been a mishearing or misinterpretation and the opposite version has caught on. But to anyone who thinks this should just be allowed to slide, and the language allowed to “evolve” to accommodate the new usage, I would ask: “how would that work?” Because for “I could care less” to be a useful way of expressing a lack of care about something, we would have to redefine the actual words in the phrase, which themselves have useful independent meanings.

But that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. The problem with people arguing that you shouldn’t go correcting grammatical errors because that would deny the natural evolution of the language is that in large part people are not using language in unconventional ways in order to enlarge the language’s utility, but are trying and failing to apply the regular rules correctly. Whenever someone says “you should come for dinner with Sally and I,” it’s not because they think “Sally and I” is a better way of referring to themselves and Sally than “Sally and me,” it’s because at some point when they said “Sally and me are going to the park,” they were told that they should say “Sally and I.” In this case, it’s worth pointing out that there are times when “Sally and I” applies and times when “Sally and me” applies, and it’s not actually that difficult to distinguish between them (just imagine that Sally’s not there after all).

When people are writing in a dialect, or mixing dialects, or writing mainstream English but deliberately subverting its conventions for some sort of effect, that’s the evolution of the language and it’s worth taking an interest in. But there are still a lot of attempts just to write mainstream English that fail because they’re not aware of how to apply some of its rules (or conventions). Another argument for knowing the rules is that the best rule-breaking tends to be done by people who know the rules in the first place. It’s great to go to a Picasso exhibition that takes in the whole of his career because you appreciate from the early sketches and so on that he had mastery of the classical skills before he went off and started producing stuff like this:

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