Why should I bother working with you, you’re the Grammar Police?

Grammar Police, despite what people think, editors are not the grammar police

Over the next few weeks I’m going to address comments and questions that I’ve heard over the years as a freelance editor and writer. I aim to help you understand who we are and what we do, and to help you decide if the time is right to work with us. And I do mean ‘us’: not every editor or writer will be a good fit for every client. Just like buying any service, you need to do a bit of research to see what works best for you.

So, let’s kick off the new year with a common misconception – that editors and proofreaders are the Grammar Police.

If I had a penny …

If I had a penny for every time I’d heard editors and proofreaders being called the Grammar Police, I’d probably have enough by now to buy a month’s worth of top notch snacks for my corgis and a slap-up family meal in one of our friendly local establishments. And those dog snacks aren’t cheap!

Despite what people think, we aren’t the Grammar Police, and, in fact, many of us have been targeted by the GP, because as editors ‘the Police’ think we should be perfect in our written word and our approach to ‘correct grammar’.

Would it surprise you to hear that language is an ever-changing, flowing, living thing, and there’s really no such thing as ‘correct grammar’?

There are conventions and suchlike. But nothing is written in stone.

Like using a conjunction to start a sentence. Oh, how the Grammar Police hate that.

So, who are the Grammar Police?

Let’s get this straight right from the beginning.

Editors and proofreaders are not the Grammar Police.

As editors, we tactfully guide our clients through the maze of good writing practices. The Grammar Police are compulsive pickers. They correct everyone who doesn’t measure up to their exacting standards. And they often do it in public. Some may feel they’re ‘giving a service’ and some may feel they’re ‘educating the less well informed’, while others are just vicious busy-bodies.

The Grammar Police don’t tend to educate in a well-meaning, private environment. They attack in public, trying to make themselves look more educated and superior in the process.

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But aren’t they right? Isn’t that what editors do?

The Grammar Police are bullies (whether they realise it or not).

They like to belittle people, and in their hurry to seem better than the average writer they often forget a few minor details:

  • It’s estimated that around 10% of the population are dyslexic.

I’ve rarely seen one of the collective take that into account before they wade in with their criticism.

  • The person they’re attacking may have English as a second language.

English is one of the most difficult languages to master. I reckon someone who has chosen to learn English, as well as speak their own language, deserves a major pat on the back, not a snarky put-down.

  • The person, through no fault of their own, may lack basic education.

Kids are often at the mercy of educational fads, and worse, and teachers and assistants who are confused themselves by spelling and grammar, and pass that along to the students. The person the Grammar Police Representative is attacking may genuinely believe there is nothing wrong.

Editors understand that dyslexia can make spelling and grammar more challenging, and will help their clients in an understanding and sympathetic manner – not belittle or chastise. They applaud those who take on English as a second language and can guide them through the differences in language structure. Many editors specialise in helping ESL writers. Editors also understand that sometimes there is a chance to help educate when the educational landscape has been muddied by changes in teaching practices.

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So what’s the difference between editors and the Grammar Police?

Editors help in a private, safe environment. They help writers make the best of their writing and advise on current practice and accepted usage. They advise, they don’t dictate.

The Grammar Police actively seek out errors so they can pick the writer apart and make themselves look superior (well, in their heads – most people think they’re a dick).

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Social Media and the Grammar Police

Sometimes it can all seem like a bit of a laugh.

There’s a Facebook page (@theofficialgrammarpolice) where 160,000 members love to pick apart people’s grammar. But it’s not had anything posted since 2018. Perhaps they got bored?

On Twitter, the Grammar Police (@GrammarCops) has 7,000 followers (an account in no way linked to the Facebook group), which seems to take a light-hearted approach.

On social media the hashtag #grammarpolice conveniently mixes those who want to educate (both helpful and snarky) with those who need help, plus some sometimes shocking observations. If you want to waste an afternoon go ahead and look.

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What do the Grammar Police pick up on the most?

The things that tend to get the Grammar Police most agitated are homophones and apostrophes.

Although they will attack just about anything they think is incorrect.

Homophones are words that have ‘the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling’ (Oxford Dictionaries definition, 2020).

Most often you’ll see words such as too and two, your and you’re, and there, their and they’re being slammed by the GP Representatives.  

Apostrophes are notoriously difficult for some people to deal with. And the apostrophe seems to bring out the worst in the Grammar Police. So much so there was an Apostrophe Protection Society. Which has now shut up shop for the last time, the ‘barbarians have won’.

These seem to be the two bugbears for the pedants, but honestly, they’ll pick you up on anything.

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People are frightened of the Grammar Police

Perhaps this is why people see editors and their red pens in the same light as the Grammar Police. It’s always scary handing over your work to see if it’s ‘good enough’. That red pen (or red marks on a Word document) can strike fear into the heart of the greatest writers. Red can be seen as aggressive, which is why myself and other editors choose to make our tracked changes in a more soothing colour. But editors use tact and diplomacy to show where changes can be made and leave the final decision up to the writer. We’re highly trained, can always explain where our changes come from and are paid to help, not hinder, the writing process.

Editors are there to make you look good.

Whereas the Grammar Police are another thing altogether. They’re rude, opinionated and can be so sure of their own heightened state of perfection, they can sometimes get things wrong too. Not that they’d admit it.

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Avoiding the Grammar Police with writing aids

People really are scared of the Grammar Police. No one wants to look stupid or uneducated. This is why Grammarly (https://www.grammarly.com/) and ProWritingAid (https://prowritingaid.com/) are such a huge hit. While I wouldn’t say they’re perfect (and they definitely can’t replace a human editor), they have picked up on writing insecurities and help eliminate them for many people.

Modern day living can bring many frustrations that lead to errors in writing you’d normally catch. The pedants will quickly jump on these before you get the chance to edit.

For example:

  • Quickly writing up blog posts that need to be out the next day. You hit ‘post’ and there’s an error that you miss. Although you’ve used every self-editing trick there is, things still slip through. Let’s get straight to the point here – while companies regularly producing content do benefit from an editor or proofreader, bloggers and independent freelancers often don’t have the time or the money to hire editors on a continuous basis.
  • Auto-bloody-correct. Now sometimes it’s just sloppy writing, but honestly, how many times have you written out a text, Twitter comment or similar on your phone, it all reads well then as you hit ‘send’ the bastard machine changes one of your words? While many people will use it as an excuse, it’s a real phenomenon. It happened to me the other day – in a string of texts my phone suddenly changed ‘what’s’ to ‘squats’ (eh?) and strangely ‘shall’ to ‘sgg h’ and it even changed ‘is’ to ‘issues’. I watched it do it. It’s like the machines are taking over to make us all look like idiots.
  • That quick message on Facebook or Twitter that autocorrect thinks is perfectly valid, but your brain is on lockdown as your fingers type you’re instead of your.

Editors are here to help you (although obviously we can’t be there for every text, email and small snippet of writing). We are not (or shouldn’t be) pedants, rather we’ll help you get your message out there in a way that ‘sounds’ like you but isn’t ambiguous, or sloppy, or just plain wrong. And we won’t shout you down for beginning a sentence with and. But, if starting a sentence this way is less effective than using a more ‘traditional’ opener, we’ll let you know.

Grammar Police like to embarrass people, whereas editors are your armour against them.

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Editors aren’t the Grammar Police, they’re your allies

So now we’ve got that straight. Editors are NOT the Grammar Police.  Let’s have a comparison:

Grammar PoliceEditors and Proofreaders
Like to make people look small.Like to help people.
Do what they do out of the kindness of their hearts.Do what they do because they are trained professionals and (let’s be frank) are paid to do it.
Love to give their opinions whenever they find the opportunity.Love to give guidance during their ‘office hours’.
Are ALWAYS right (even when they’re not).Know that language is an ever-changing, flowing beast that sometimes needs to be prodded and poked, and sometimes needs to be left alone to take its own course.
Are often very angry people, with an inflated sense of entitlement.Are usually a very happy, friendly bunch who support each other and their clients.

So why should you bother working with us, now you know we’re not the Grammar Police?

If you want confidential, professional advice on your writing, an editor is a smart choice.

If you want that final look over to make sure everything is present and correct, a proofreader will give you peace of mind.

Editors and proofreaders are professionally trained and there will be one out there who is your perfect fit. Don’t be afraid to ask for their background and training, and don’t be embarrassed to talk to more than one editorial professional.

Editors are there to help you navigate the ever-changing landscape of language.

The Grammar Police are hobbyists with a penchant for pedantry.

4 Comments on “Why should I bother working with you, you’re the Grammar Police?

  1. Great post, Sara, and lots of points I could really resonate with. I have a dyslexic son, and a family member with English as a second language, too. One of the saddest things about the ‘grammar police’ is that fear of their ridicule stops people from using their voice, and can really lower self-confidence. Well done on setting the record straight about what you do, and for offering helpful guidance and support.

    • Thanks, Gail. I’ll admit, when I started this blog years ago, I occasionally got really scared uploading. Self-confidence is so easily knocked, and the grammar police do what they do so publicly and nastily.

      Editors are there to guide, support and educate, so people really shouldn’t be scared of us. If I can help just a little to put minds at rest, it makes me happy 🙂

  2. Spot-on post. Whenever a member of the GP questions why I wouldn’t “fix” something (like a split infinitive or a sentence beginning with a conjunction), my answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the purpose of the piece (casual blog, formal journal article), the voice of the author, the intended audience (middle school student or medical professional), etc.

    And I have a dirty little secret: I have been a copy editor for decades, but when I began my career, I did not know how to use an apostrophe correctly! I just sort of stuck one in sometimes where I thought maybe I needed one. I was blessed with a superb and patient editor who trained me in scientific copy editing.

    • Yes! It depends! And some ‘rules’ are so archaic they should be knocked on the head.

      And don’t worry. Apostrophes get sooo many people befuddled. You were lucky to be trained by someone directly, a patient mentor is worth their weight in gold 🌟

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