Some time ago, a stranger lambasted me on Twitter for complaining about the verb phrase had of. As she saw it, had of was a mere misspelling of had’ve, which is a ‘legitimate’ (presumably by virtue of its being commonly used) verb phrase – often as part of a hypothetical like ‘if I had’ve known’.

To her, I was nothing but an oppressive prescriptivist. In my defence, however, I had been tweeting (as I’m wont to do) about something editing-related: a writer had used had of instead of the conventionally correct had, and I was expressing frustration over having to edit this phrase that seems to pervade even the work of professionals.

While my Twitter-critic used the word prescriptivist, she may as well have called me a grammar nazi – a moniker that has been on the receiving end of some criticism in recent months. In a September 2013 article in Daily Life, in particular, Annie Stevens argues that grammar-nazi behaviour is just an exercise in putting down others in order to bolster one’s own self-esteem, not so much a commitment to a properly punctuated cause.

Her assertion plays out in the comments section of online publications and in social media posts, where know-it-alls lurk, ready to discredit someone’s contribution because of a misplaced apostrophe. But underpinning such assumptions of (in)correctness is the view that English has a set of rules that apply in every situation, which can be policed by anyone who has sufficiently grasped them.

In many cases, the assumption holds. The article a signifies indefiniteness, while the is for something in particular. Subjects and their verbs should always numerically agree – she eats but they eat. The past perfect tense denotes an event that precedes a verb in the past tense – I was roused by the alarm you had set. These rules apply whether you’re in Canada or India or Malaysia or Denmark. But what if you’re discussing an already-finished task – should you use the simple past (I did it, as in American English) or the present perfect (I’ve done it, as is common in Australia and the UK)? Is it 1970s, 1970’s, ’70s, 70s or seventies? And why do people insist on using pronouns in the nominative case following a preposition (for Jenny and I) when they need to be in the objective (for Jenny and me)?

Here, English becomes riddled with conventions and circumstantial exceptions instead of easily enforceable rules. Unlike rules, conventions go beyond simple triggers (taco + plural = tacos) and take context into account. And as David Crystal contends in The Fight for English (his answer to the ‘zero-tolerance approach’ proposed by Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots & Leaves):

At the heart of linguistics is the distinction between “grammatical” and “ungrammatical”, between “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. It is the boundary line which attracts all the arguments.

On the one hand, using the wrong they’re/their/there can sound the death knell for someone contributing to an intellectual discussion. On the other, there’s Beyoncé – who drops the verb and quips, ‘We flawless,’ and sings with the counter-logical double negative, ‘Don’t have to ask no-one to help me out,’ without her message being delegitimised. Both statements violate the ‘rules’ of English, yet nobody cries ‘Typo!’ when Bey takes the stage.

This is the convoluted context into which my Twitter-critic dragged me. To drive her criticisms home, she touted herself as a descriptivist – a champion of linguistic diversity and evolution – then bragged that she was knowledgeable because of her linguistics degree.

Now, I don’t mean no disrespect, but while her commitment to descriptivism is admirable, there’s a significant disconnect between language-as-theory and language-as-used. Granted, my penchant for rules makes me vulnerable to this criticism too – arguably, rules are just the normative counterparts of theory, after all. But what her descriptivist diatribe fails to acknowledge is that inequality is an inevitable aspect of communication. (Here, I’m reminded of the criticisms levelled against Jürgen Habermas’ Ideal Speech Situation, which promises complete equity in discourse if all markers of identity are discarded. Spoiler: you can’t do that, because how you speak/write betrays who you are, which means some people are continually ostracised.)

The thing is, descriptivism – as with prescriptivism – isn’t a method. It isn’t a systematic practice, like vegetarianism, that has a definitive set of do’s and don’ts to accompany its theoretical underpinnings. Instead, it’s an analytical framework, not unlike Marxian economics or utilitarianism, through which the world can be understood and which, when appropriated in praxis, can lead to dubious results (see: Russia and the US, respectively). I may enact linguistic rules whenever I turn on Track Changes at the office, but I don’t bandy around the label ‘prescriptivist’ and chant, ‘Purge thyself of all imperfect language.’

Perhaps, lacking in context, it was difficult for my Twitter-critic to understand this; to her, I was just another grammar nazi inflicting my officious observations on some unsuspecting comment-section contributor. But, in reality, it’s my job as an editor to improve the work of my writers – partly a political exercise in safeguarding not only their reputation but also that of the publication – by mediating between conventions and colloquialisms. Had of might be fine in a chat between mates, but it isn’t acceptable in an essay that has been commissioned for pay.

But underpinning such assumptions of (in)correctness is the view that English has a set of rules that apply in every situation, which can be policed by anyone who has sufficiently grasped them.

All of this may sound like Linguistics 101, but it bears reiterating: we make judgments based on the sort of English people use. (Some diehard grammarphiles, as reported by Kate Jones in this Age article, even base their buying decisions on the ‘correctness’ of a company’s advertising or marketing material, with ‘basic spelling errors and even typos […] enough to make these pedants distrust a company and reject their product’. Further reading: the comments section below the article.) It’s a problematic, hegemonic system, yet we can’t avoid using this shorthand for others’ authority/credibility.

The flipside, as with all forms of hegemony, is that what was once divergent or oppositional can become the norm. The Guardian production editor David Marsh rightfully laments that ‘a lot of people seem to think all [linguistic] change must be for the worse’. But any good editor will regularly check the Macquarie for changes to Australian English. Any good editor will suck it up and accept that literally and ironic now have other meanings beyond their ‘true’ senses. Any good editor will respect the writer’s idiosyncratic way of using language while still polishing the work for a wide readership. This isn’t just self-serving ‘spin’ on my part – ask any editor who cares enough to check six style guides just to ascertain whether well-written should be hyphenated when used in the predicative.

Yes, editors have prescriptivist leanings, and the hegemony of Standard English remains, but unduly condemning us as grammar nazis is just as counterproductive as dismissing someone’s argument because of an incorrect it’s. Good editors have way more than ‘zero tolerance’; our role as linguistic ‘custodians’ means we need to keep abreast of the language’s evolution. And perhaps, if I had(’ve) been able to communicate all this to my Twitter-critic, she’d have been less antipathetic towards me and my tweet.

Adolfo Aranjuez is the editor of Metro, the subeditor of Screen Education and a member of Writers Victoria’s editorial committee. Previously, he was the in-house editor at Melbourne Books, the editor of Award Winning Australian Writing, the editor of Fragmented and the deputy editor of Voiceworks (for whom he wrote regular ‘Grammar Booty Call’ posts). He tweets @adolfo_ae.