People who don't care about grammar often get it right anyway

“I’ll dress warm,” I wrote to friends recently in a group email about a get-together on the patio of a local café.

What happened next will sound familiar to every careful user of the English language: I second-guessed my own grammar. “Is ‘warm’ OK instead of ‘warmly?’” I wondered. “How do those rules work again? And, even if I got it right, do I have to worry my friends will think I was wrong? Can I defend my choice? Will I have to?”

If you know people who don’t care a whit about their grammar, don’t look down on them. Envy them. These folks not only sidestep a lot of this anguish, but, ironically, their nonchalance often ensures good grammar. After all, natural language is where grammar rules come from.

Winging it prevents hypercorrection, which is what happens when you work too hard to speak grammatically and, as a result, make a mistake. “Between you and I” is a good example. The more grammatically correct form is “between you and me,” since “between” is a preposition and prepositions take object pronouns. But people trying to be proper use “I,” ironically making their choice less proper than the people who didn’t try so hard.

That goes double for adverbs. Consider the sentence: Slice the onions thinly. To someone who’s fretting over grammar, the adverb “thinly” might seem necessary, since you’re talking about an action: slicing. But you’re not describing an action. You’re describing a noun: the onions.

“One must analyze the sentence,” advises Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage. Here's the full story in my recent column.

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