Grammar Discourse

The other day, I was talking with my sister when she said “it had shrunk”.

“Shrunken,” I corrected.

She paused and gave me a puzzled look. “No, it’s ‘shrunk’.”

Had shrunk. Past perfect.”

“But… ‘shrunk’ is the past perfect. The simple past of shrink is ‘shrank’.”

My mind went blank with confusion. When looking for the correct verb according to its proper tense, I usually refer to what sounds right to me and almost always it has served me perfectly well. However, now that my sister had mentioned it, my inner tenses directory did indeed agree with my sister. Shrink, shrank and shrunk.

“But why is the movie titled “Honey, I shrunk the kids?”

This little intermission in our small talk lead to a Google search that brought us to a page that listed the “10 grammatically incorrect movie titles” which indeed listed the movie “Honey, I shrunk the kids” as one of them and the discourse was settled – ‘shrunk’ is the past perfect tense of shrink. Had I not interjected and attempted to correct my sister’s perfectly correct tenses, I would probably still be using shrunken and be none the wiser.

In our casual conversations, everyone in my family is under constant grammar (and at times, pronunciation) scrutiny. We’re all acting as unsolicited grammar polices which, at times, can be incredibly frustrating when you have a good flow in your dramatic retelling of the previous day’s events and you are interrupted by “he has, not ‘have’.”

On the flip side, however, this attitude had been ingrained in our familial culture for so long that such corrections are, for the most part, taken without a negative perception or ill feelings which has created an environment that promotes and encourage constant improvement in our use of the language. I remember being constantly corrected for my tenses as a young child, doing the same to my siblings and now even have them correcting my mistakes. Speaking personally from my point of view, I correct other’s mistakes because I want my own mistakes to be corrected as I don’t know what I don’t know.

This is why I feel really strongly about correcting someone’s grammar whenever I catch someone using an incorrect term.

At the same time, I am fully aware that grammar policing is generally frowned upon as a ‘prescriptivist’ approach towards language by linguistic aficionados while the rest of the society often view it as being rude. Thus, it bothers me when I go to various places and notice signs which are misspelled or are grammatically incorrect and I have no acceptable way of letting the owners know and giving them a corrected alternative. If the place has a suggestion box lying around, I could simply write a note and hope that it would be taken seriously by the person who is going through the forms and that they would act according to the manager’s wishes.

I am not strictly a prescriptivist when it comes to my approach to language (I might write on my approach to language someday) but I do know that there are many people who are eager and willing to improve their proficiency but are either not given the chance to, or are simply afraid of being perceived as a bad speaker of the language. I myself might feel a little uncomfortable if a stranger decides to correct my grammar simply because I am aware that in our society today, such acts are often considered as distasteful and I could never tell if it was meant as an honest correction or a thinly veiled insult.

But as strongly as I feel about having the capability to use good the ‘standard’ version of a language, I don’t feel the need to force it down throats that does not wish to swallow it. I am sure that some people are perfectly contented with speaking a language at a basic comprehendible level even if they only use a single verb for all of the tenses. If it isn’t detrimental to their own chosen paths, that’s perfectly fine with me. It’s just unfortunate that those who are struggling to improve their Standard English proficiency are not able to get easier access to as simple a help as a gentle correction or even a lengthy discussion on why a word is used in a certain way.

I believe that if we wish to improve our language proficiency as a group, be it a community or a larger society, we should adopt a more receptive attitude towards corrections. However, it is just as important for those involved to not abuse this accepting nature by hiding behind disguises of superior grammar to throw insults and win petty arguments (as witnessed by anyone who is familiar with the comment section of YouTube videos or any posting on the internet in general). This attitude of mutual correction should be used as a means for growth and improvement and remarks should be made politely with the intention to help and not to scorn or belittle.

And don’t be ashamed to ask for corrections or guides either. If you have a disagreement the way my sister and I did, have a discussion and search for more information. At the end of the day, everyone would be learning something new about the convoluted system of English grammar – or any other language of your choice.

If we all work together to guide each other, it would not only help to improve our capability to use language in both writing and speech, it would also create an environment that promotes an open approach to learning and growth, where a curious thought is not dismissed by embarrassment but developed by discussion, research and voluntary study.