“Why are you capitalizing words in your texts?” “Did you really end that text with a period?” “Mom, no. You text like a Karen. It’s embarrassing. Just no.” “That meme is literally 18 months old. It’s cringe.” In case I had any illusion about my ongoing youthful exuberance energy, I’m clearly not passing. Every once in a while I’ll get it right, and I can see that while they are still rolling their eyes at me, my adult kids are slightly proud that their mom isn’t literally the worst which basically means above average for my age cohort.

I was recently listening to an interview with linguist, Gretchen McCulloch (yes, I know that sounds deadly dull to many of you, but as a former English major, that stuff is mother’s milk to me). She was talking about how memes and online communications have radically altered how people communicate and connect, and that one thing that’s going away is slavish devotion to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Not only was I an English major and unrepentant Grammar Nazi, but I also studied French for six years. French is even worse than English for being insular and inflexible.[1] As my high school French teacher boasted, the Academie Francaise only permits 200 new words to be admitted to the language per year. The reality is, though, that this kind of rigid purity in language may feel to its practitioners like a point of national heritage and pride, but it’s also one of the reasons that French didn’t remain the international language of business that it was touted as during my high school years.[2] Its relevance has diminished in my lifetime, not grown. English, on the other hand, particularly American English which likes to be on the cutting edge of culture through social media, journalism, music and film, has proven to be a flexible and vibrant language, adding and creating new words all the time.

Side note: the interviewers briefly discussed that “adjectives don’t exist,” which totally blew my mind. My focus was on creative writing, not journalism, and I can tell you that adjectives were our bread and butter. I have an impressive arsenal of adjectives I can whip out at a moment’s notice. However, they are anathema in journalism, and now I can’t unsee it. News articles with adjectives are basically garbage, the fodder of emotionally manipulative fake news junkets and grotesque hacks like Matt Walsh. Those without adjectives are at least purporting to be fact-based.

McCulloch pointed out that punctuation was created to improve a reader’s comprehension by indicating pauses and stops (every English major knows this, and probably most average Joes as well), but over time, our rules became calcified and less flexible. The introduction of new media such as texting, Twitter, and other social media platforms alters how punctuation works and how a message “feels” when various types of punctuation are employed. I confess that I’m really not able to keep up with all the evolving social media rules of communication because I’m not 18, despite the ongoing lecture series I receive from my offspring. I can grasp the concept of the changes, but not all the nuances. For the sake of this OP, though, I can Dunning-Kreuger my way through it.

One of the take-aways from this interview that was most salient was the reminder that communication is about two people understanding one another, both in the content and the emotion being conveyed. Communication is not served by an appeal to rules. Strict grammarians like I was trained to be interrupt that connection by bringing in a third party that is unrelated to either the emotion or the content, by policing the rules of the communication itself. Apparently my kids don’t even know who Strunk & White are, and nobody cares who they are. In fairness, I think I quit caring who they are a few decades ago.

So let’s take a look at me being a jerk about the rules. I saw this Tweet in my feed. It irked me on two levels: 1) I’m not into this content, and 2) that second sentence has tense disagreement!

Let’s be honest, that’s not the kind of Tweet that’s going to go viral (my response), and I’m OK with that because I got my “reward” which was the smugness of making an arcane grammatical reference that literally nobody cares about but that in my mind makes me feel smarter than the people I already thought were dumb based on the content they were liking and sharing. It’s like I beat them twice. Them not using correct grammar justified my disdain for their political views.

McCulloch, in her interview, called this type of policing behavior inserting a third entity into communication to disrupt it and stop the communication process. I mean, yeah, that’s totally fair. This example wasn’t a two-way sharing of ideas. It was me knowing more about rules and performing my superior / eccentric knowledge of grammar as a means to discredit the original post (while also being fully aware that this area of expertise is largely unimportant and a rejection of the actual sharing of ideas we call communication).

If you’ve made it this far, you’re a champ. This point she made, while an astute call-out for self-important grammarian nerds like me (and clearly herself), was an even more valuable sociological observation about rule-policing behavior and its impact to human communication and relationships. Like the rigid grammarian, the rigid rule-follower isn’t interested in connecting with other people. Such a person seeks to demonstrate superior rule-following and/or performative fealty to the rules or to an authoritative source. And if that’s not familiar to you, you haven’t been paying attention in Mormon culture. It’s the air we breathe.

Like the grammarian, the rulist (I’m making up a new term here, but since this is in English, I can do what I like) wants to know all the rules, where they come from (in case called upon to defend their stance), and evaluate the behaviors of others in the community against that third-party authoritative standard. Conceptually, thinking about this reminded me of a Utah house listing I once saw that included a picture of the First Presidency hanging over the marriage bed.[3] McCulloch’s point was that any time we insert that third party “standard” into a conversation, the communication stops being about whatever the content was, whatever human connection was forming, and immediately becomes about the arbitration of standards with one person pointing to the standard, bolstering their interpretation of the standard with an appeal to authority, and sometimes the other person defending their own misuse or use of the standard with a contradicting appeal to authority.[4] Both people in this scenario can remain firmly convinced that they are right because the other person “doesn’t get it.”

Once you begin to see these types of interruptions to communication, like adjectives in journalism, you can’t unsee them. There are real friendships and relationships at Church, but there are also many, many superficial relationships that fall back on rule arbitration instead of connecting as people. I suspect this is exacerbated by the fact that ward members run the ward as unpaid volunteers, so evaluating contribution and trustworthiness are ongoing needs to eliminate the drag of free-loaders and minimize the strain on top contributors. However, there’s something beautiful to the idea that trust should be based on that connection between people rather than on reasonable-sounding rules set by a third party and used as a heuristic without actually giving you any valuable information about a person.

Which brings me to another podcast, Hidden Brain. In an older episode, Creating God, they discussed that religion functioned as an in-group that could be trusted when humans didn’t have other things that indicated trustworthiness such as shared nationality, good credit scores, and dental hygiene. It was an interesting point. We have a lot more ways to determine whether another person is essentially “trustworthy” now than we did a few hundred years ago, and more ways to hold them accountable for basic pro-social behavior. Consider the Kirtland Bank scandal in Mormon history. That was pretty recent in the history of human civilization, and people did not have a good way to determine whether the scheme was trustworthy or not. Many relied on trusting fellow Mormons as part of their in-group, but they would have done better to look at a credit score (if such a thing had existed then). Likewise when the nefarious John C. Bennett infiltrated Nauvoo, seducing women for “spiritual wifery” and claiming he was authorized to do so by Joseph Smith. He was able to prey on the in-group bias of the community. Religion alone (or any other group membership) is only going to tell you so much about a person. Observable rule-following is similarly limited.

I remember growing up in the Church that there were many members who weren’t strictly observant of various Mormon norms. They didn’t follow all the written rules, let alone the unwritten rules, but they were part of the community, even an integral, trusted part of the ward framework. It feels as though that is no longer the case since the requirement of having a current temple recommend to hold a calling was instituted around the mid-90s. Maybe we’ve lost something along the way.

It’s easier to perform adherence to rules than it is to truly connect and understand other people, to know them well enough to know their character and their heart. Maybe it’s worth setting aside our pride in rule-following to get to know these less adherent folks well enough to find the best way for them to fit into our Mormon culture again.

  • Have you observed this rule-following heuristic that substitutes for relationships?
  • Is it possible to integrate those who are less observant into our congregations or are they inherently untrustworthy? Will bringing them in lead to rampant questioning of the rules and resentment of sacrifices required by the rules?
  • Have the rules replaced relationships in your ward or are there still real connections that lead to trust and respect based on communication and empathy?
  • Are rulists like that inherently, or does Mormon or ward culture create rulists?


[1] Although it’s honestly more flexible than it boasts. French speakers still add their own words and adopt them from other languages, but they just don’t officially add them to the language. Basically, average French people are saying to the Academie Francaise, “OK, Boomer.”

[2] I suspect this was really just some combination of my French teacher’s home pride and a throwback to French Colonialism, particularly in Asia and Africa, not that it was ever really going to happen. China’s got a billion people, France. Sorry, but it wasn’t even a close contest. However, my high school was not offering refunds on those wasted years studying an increasingly irrelevant language. Quelle surprise.

[3] YIKES. Also, I really hate the term “marriage bed” which frankly sounds disgusting, but “master” bedroom has fallen out of favor and “primary” bedroom still doesn’t sound right either. I also fail to see how “owner’s” bedroom is not equally as bad as “master” bedroom. Isn’t language fun?

[4] Or just shrugging and walking away while muttering, “OK, boomer,” because as I mentioned NOBODY CARES.

**Grammarian in me feels the need to point out that the use of “fail” instead of “failure” in the title is further evidence of the flexibility of English. But secretly I know it should be “failure.”