Gutting the Grammarians
The discriminatory undertones of “proper” speech.
Raise your hand if you hate grammar!
Now raise your hand if you think grammar is actually racist!
If you’re like me, you may find certain grammatical rules petty, annoying, and somewhat arbitrary, but you probably don’t think of the grammatical structures that govern the English language as anything more than just a composite of rules and regulations that some English professors made up.
You may have fierce loyalty to the Oxford comma (I know I do), and you may loathe misplaced parenthetical punctuation (I know I do), but in general, you probably regard grammar as a necessary part of linguistic coherence, and certainly not a vestige of classism.
But maybe you’re a proud grammarian. Maybe you drink your coffee from a mug that reads “I’m silently correcting your grammar” as you red pen your way through page after page of dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and misused gerunds. You consider yourself a bastion of clarity and correctness — a bulwark against the tides of confusion and confabulation — a stalwart defender of civility and sensibility.
My friend, if that’s the case, then I hate to tell you this, but you are the subject of this article’s derision. And I’m doubly sorry to inform you that you’re probably more implicitly racist than you realize.
I was once like you. I belonged to the cult of grammar nerds (often mockingly labeled as “Grammar Nazis”), and I was a card-carrying member of the snobbish elite who insisted on “proper” English all the time.
I used to cringe when I read a “which” that should have been a “that,” and I still wince sometimes when I see a “was” that should have been a “were.” But even though I used to pride myself on my nearly immaculate grammar, I’ve fallen out of favor with the idea that we must speak “correctly” all the time.
I first began slipping away from this belief when I came to the conclusion that I would never be perfectly grammatically correct all the time. But more importantly, I realized that grammar was beginning to hinder my authentic expression and actually stymie my ability to communicate effectively. Grammar was muddying the waters of my words, not clarifying them, and it was making language less joyful to me.
Yes, I would delight in the jigsaw-esque process of crafting a grammatically correct paragraph, but that was coming at the expense of the delight in language itself. I was becoming a slave to grammar rather than its master. I began to lose the love of words in the process of “upholding” what I thought was the purpose of words, when in reality the only purpose of words is to communicate our thoughts, intentions, and desires.
As Stephen Fry remarked with regard to the pedants like me in his essay on language:
Do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.
But there’s a more devilish trouble afoot, lurking behind the sentiment of even the most well-intentioned grammar snob: racism.
Most of us don’t think of linguistic norms as class markers and racial signifiers, but they very much are. Worse, they are one of the most difficult to access and hard to mimic markers of all.
So many people are denied opportunities based on class, ethnicity, and gender expression. Consider the real-world study in which two identical résumés were sent to hundreds of potential employers, but one candidate’s name was Joe while the other’s name was Jose; a one letter difference resulted in Jose being contacted half as often.
That’s a clear example of bias and discrimination based on ethnic background, but at least it’s easy to measure and quantify (and thereby address). But linguistic classism based on grammatical errors in writing and speech is painfully difficult to identify, and there’s always plausible deniability on the part of the discriminator.
Sometimes, though, the contempt is more openly hostile, as in the case with Black English Vernacular (BEV), otherwise referred to (sometimes derisively) as Ebonics. Speakers who lack subject-verb agreement or who omit the copula “be” face the unapologetic ire of the grammar snobs who insist that speech of this sort is plainly and unequivocally wrong.
My friends, this is racism, pure and simple.
To insist that a dialect is incorrect smacks of cultural imperialism, and though it may be used with the justification of “preserving our heritage,” that is just a thin disguise for the belief that one mode of expression is superior to another.
A person who says “I be ridin’ the bus” is no more or less wrong than anyone else — their meaning is clear and their point comes across effectively. To insist otherwise is to imply a linguistic hierarchy that puts white educated native speakers on the top and everyone else on the bottom. This may not seem like a huge problem, but it is an affront to the dignity and respectability of certain ethnic groups, and that can have harmful downstream consequences on the way we view our neighbors who happen to speak differently.
To the pedants out there, stop assuming that grammatical omissions are born of ignorance — the speaker may just be more colorful and original than you give them credit for. And while we’re at it, stop insisting that the singular “they/them” is incorrect — we’re living in a post-gender society. Deal with it!
We owe it to those in society who don’t have access to finishing school, who speak uniquely because we’ve failed to adequately provide for their education, and who desperately cloak their accents and swallow their words for fear of being ostracized and ridiculed to be more patient, forgiving, and curious. These people bring something new and exciting to the linguistic smorgasbord that the pedants among us would rather have filled with boiled goose and stale crackers. We should welcome these new contributions with gusto and fervor, excitedly adding them to the melting pot that is the English language.
In the field of linguistics, there is a debate between people called prescriptivists and descriptivists. The former believe that there are rules that ought to govern our acts of speech that render certain utterances proper and correct, while the latter believe that no such rules exist, and that current grammatical frameworks (and even words themselves) can change and evolve over time.
If you’d like a quick recap of Semantics 101, Read Frindle by Andrew Clements: every convention, style, and norm was made up at one point or another, and that includes even the most fundamental base units of words themselves. Words change as society changes, so don’t fall into the trap of believing that certain words or phrases are inappropriate or “wrong” — there is no such thing as right or wrong words so long as the point of what the speaker intends is being expressed.
I used to be a prescriptivist, but consider this article my formal coming out as a descriptivist! Let us throw orderliness and rule-following to the wolves as we misspell and wronguse our words, defy conventions of punctuation,,, celebrate the blips, blops, and bloops of linguistic absurdity, coin new words brazenfully and brashingly, and revel in the new and ever-evolving dance of communication!
I’ll leave you with the words of my friend Charles, a brilliant actor who delights in wordplay and the silliness of language:
“All words are made up words.”
Now let’s start acting like it! 😜