Grammar and the Grammar Police

[This post was originally titled Grammar and the Great White Males. This offended some of the people it referred to. I think they are right. Hence the new title]

The Grammar Police keep on picking me up when I discuss good grammar, spelling and punctuation, saying things like “I thought you said grammar doesn’t matter.”

I didn’t say that, though. I said that grammar is a description of how people write or speak, not a prescription for how they ought to write or speak. I said that the value of what someone has to say doesn’t depend on them using what others consider to be correct grammar.

If you believe that grammar is a useful thing for self-expression, then you should be able to see that a person who doesn’t have is at a disadvantage. You aren’t helping them by ignoring what they are saying while shoving apostrophes and personal pronouns at them. This is beautifully expressed in this article (thanks for the reference Anna Kahn) which argues that literacy is a privilege and should not be used to put down people less privileged than yourself. The author talks about a newbie on a discussion forum who gets linguistically skewered:

Here are some of the things we don’t know about Jonny. Jonny might be dyslexic. He might have spent his entire childhood being shamed and belittled by his teachers and classmates because his brain works differently from theirs. He might come from an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional home, where focusing on his English studies comes a distant second to keeping the pieces of his body and spirit together. He might be living on food stamps and lacking the necessary fuel to fire his brain’s higher-level synapses. He might avoid school altogether because his head has been knocked into lockers one too many times. He might have a brain injury. He might have spent most of the third grade hooked up to life support in the Children’s Hospital while his classmates were getting hooked on phonics. He might be a refugee from a country whose native language has an entirely different writing system, or no writing system at all. He might be surviving any combination of these circumstances, and more. At this point, we can’t even be certain that Jonny is spelling his own name correctly – and this is a tragedy, not a joke.

Read this article. If after reading it you still feel you should correct other people’s grammar then you are probably a bit of an asshole.

I can believe all this and still aim for clarity and easy comprehension in my own writing, which can be helped by good grammar and spelling. These are useful tools and should be taught in school. But people who fail to learn them are still people, are not necessarily stupid or lazy, and they should be listened to with respect. </rant>


22 thoughts on “Grammar and the Grammar Police

  1. Yes!!! I love this. I have a friend that has learning difficulties. He can read but really struggles to spell or use correct punctuation when he’s writing. We text each other but I’ve had to practice reading and understanding what he’s put. Yet he’s one of the best people I know and he’s really intelligent. It’s not something to be judged on at all.

  2. Sorry, but ‘Jonny’ may very well also just be lazy and not bothered to put any thought into how he writes – which is actually more likely, IMO. Because I see many people (mainly kids, but then that’s the analogy you quote with all the references to schooling) who project through not just their writing that they could barely care less, and far fewer who suffer from acute dyslexia or other issues. Those that do face difficulties try far harder than most to overcome them, and deserve the praise they get. Those with the opportunity to be coherent and verbose, but who choose not to put in the effort, certainly do not deserve the benefit afforded to the former. We’ve certainly not got to the point yet where we forgive because we assume everybody is a sufferer from some terrible handicap. If that makes me a ‘GWM’ then so be it. I’d rather be a GWM than an apologist for those who won’t even try. It also doesn’t make me a asshole, it makes me someone who cares about stuff beyond myself.

    1. It probably does make you a GWM. And it’s up to you to decide if you’re an asshole. I can see no justification for correcting other people’s grammar unless they have requested it, or if you are their teacher (or parent, although you can bet that won’t work in the long run either), or if they are representing you in some way.

      To me this para expresses what makes your position one of privilege and entitlement and therefore makes you a GWM:

      ‘For one thing, the idea that there is only one right way of doing English – and everyone else is doing it wrong – is inherently flawed. And by “flawed” I mean illogical, elitist and even oppressive. Judgements about what counts as “right”, “good” and “correct” in writing and grammar always – ALWAYS – align with characteristics of the dialects spoken by privileged, mostly wealthy, mostly white people. We make these judgements based on learned biases, as well as a certain emotional attachment to our own way of doing things. But when people study dialects in an objective, scientific way (which is what cunning linguists actually do), they find that low-prestige dialects, such as African-American Vernacular English or Cockney English, have fully-formed grammar rules of their own that make just as much sense as any others. They are perfectly valid and functional forms of communication used by millions of people. The only difference is that they don’t have people running around telling everyone else to do it their way.’

      1. Just goes to show that on this level, you really don’t know me. Privilege and entitlement have no place in my make-up, nor do they constitute why I feel so strongly that the rules of grammar are so important. They really cannot be allowed to simply fade into insignificance, because these are RULES laid down over centuries, and whilst these rules do evolve and shift over time, that doesn’t mean that people can decide to ignore them and still expect to be understood. The paragraph that you quoted above has several fundamental flaws in it – not least that it’s clearly written using the very grammar rules that the author feels so very strongly against. Why didn’t he write it using Cockney vernacular? Or Jive? Or any other of the many grammatical systems he espouses so greatly? Because he wants to be understood, that’s why. So that gives the lie to his central premise.

    1. Yeah, I saw that, partly it was the inspiration for the post. Based on Robin Thicke’s nasty rapey Blurred Lines video. Pretty much proves my point. Robin Thicke is a serious asshole and definitely a GWM.

  3. Having re-read your earlier long comment, I would say that the central point of my OP is that it’s fine to make rules about your own grammar, it’s not OK to tell everybody else how they should behave. This principle applies to many walks of life.

  4. > use of the word ‘dumb’

    If you use the word “dumb” for stupid, you are making life unpleasant for people who are literally dumb, that’s to say, unable to speak. That’s not nice, especially when there’s are perfectly good words that’s don’t marginalise other people. So let’s elaborate on the principle that “it’s fine to make rules about your own grammar, it’s not OK to tell everybody else how they should behave”. It’s OK for you to do/say whatever you like provided it doesn’t hurt other people. So – use grammar to attack other people’s speech – not OK, hurts other people. Use the word dumb to characterise stupidity – not OK.

    Use grammar to improve the comprehensibility of your own writing: OK

    Use the word ‘silly’? OK. Use the word ‘stupid’? Getting a bit aggressive.

    Paul, you seem to be on the side of the bullies in this discussion.

  5. “it’s not OK to tell everybody else how they should behave”

    Isn’t that what you’re doing? You seem to be very much displaying cognitive dissonance here, Jeremy. Your method of using the very traits you are berating in me strikes me as odd – I won’t go further than ‘odd’ for fear of using the wrong term and causing further potential offence. But I have to be honest – I really don’t know why this gets you so worked up to the point where you refer to friends as ‘Great White Males’, ‘assholes’ and ‘bullies’.

    Use of grammar, and pride in use of correct grammar (that is, the grammar accepted as the correct one by language and literary experts) is a good thing. Annoyance when you see it misused is a natural extension of that, and a tendency towards offering advice when we see errors is only human. Which I get – if that was your only point here. But you’re also berating people for using particular words, which don’t seem to fall into your definition of ‘accepted’ even though a) that’s exactly what we do when we correct grammar errors, and b) the words are generally acceptable by fact that they are NEVER picked up and censored or censured anywhere – except maybe on this blog. So saying someone is dumb for doing something stupid is fine. I’ll keep saying it until such time as it gets printed as ‘d**b’ in the media.

    You know me – you know I don’t intend to abuse, offend or upset anyone. So you know deep down that the way you describe my word usage and intent is not the truth. That’s why I’m confused as to how you can state I’m wrong for ‘using the wrong language’ and ‘not using the wrong language’ in the same sentence?

  6. There are so many issues raised here I can’t possibly deal with them all. Underlying this discussion is your idea that “the grammar accepted as the correct one by language and literary experts” is the only way to be, and that everything else is wrong. It doesn’t hurt you if someone uses their own grammar; you wouldn’t for example consider something said in a foreign language to be wrong, even though it doesn’t follow the rules of grammar that you call correct. And why should it bother you if someone puts an apostrophe in what you think is the wrong place, or spells a word differently from the way you spell it, or uses a word to mean something different from what you define it to mean? It doesn’t hurt anybody, your annoyance about it is your stuff.

    On the subject of the term ‘dumb’ – imagine how you would feel if you were a person with a speech disorder, and people all around you were using a term that derided your condition. If you can’t see that this is unpleasant for them then that’s probably the end of this discussion.

    Language has meaning – each word has a payload, and some words hurt people. This is why certain usages should be deprecated. A grammar is a set of rules that describe how some people put words together. If someone uses a grammar different from yours, it hurts nobody.

  7. I can’t see anything in your response that addresses my questions – just restates your original position without engaging. It that’s where we are, then yes – it’s possibly time to leave it.

    However, I do have one question: Do you not feel that the term “great white male” is somewhat racist, because it brings my racial background into a term designed to be used as a derogatory reference? And given that you very freely used the term and even explicitly attributed it to me, does that not negate your standpoint in this whole discussion about use of the correct words and terminology with regards to “each word having a payload” and the rest that goes with it?

  8. The issue of white male privilege is not a concept that is new. White males who complain about anti-white racism when these traits are mentioned are out of touch with the way the world is. You probably are not aware of the controversy around #NOTALLMEN and #ALLLIVESMATTER as opposed to #BLACKLIVESMATTER. I suggest as a thinking person you read up on these things, and try to grasp the concept that this is NOT ABOUT YOU. You don’t need to make yourself the centre of a discussion which is about people who are not privileged, through race, or through ability, or through gender, or through sexuality, or through wealth. As a cis-gendered (look it up), white, male, educated and employed person, you’ve got it all. You are not vulnerable. You are not likely to stopped on the street or shot by a policeman just for the colour of your skin. You are not likely to be disfavoured for a job or paid less because of your sex.

    The term Great White Male came to me when you and two or three other male friends of mine were arguing with Anna, mansplaining to her about grammar and not listening to what she said. The fact is that Anna knows a load more about grammar than any of those people, but they felt that they could talk down to her or shout her down because she was young and female. Turns out I didn’t invent the phrase: see this article.

  9. But this is a discussion between you and I. Therefore at the level we are at, it IS about me – at least in some great part. Denying that is making this whole conversation pointless. And please – don’t offend me by assuming that I would talk down to Anna – for ANY reason, let alone that she’s young and female. Am I really an ageist, sexist, misogynist in your eyes? I thought that we knew each other. I am actually very offended that you could possibly think that of me, let alone consider it something you would put in writing.

    I’m out of here. Can I ask you to consider what you said?

  10. It is a conversation between you and me but it originates in a discussion about how other people tried to shut Anna down by criticising her grammar in a post rather than dealing with the substance of what she had to say. I shared her post on my timeline and several people immediately started making energetic posts about the importance of grammar and how the rules have to be followed. They were making it about them (and this includes you) rather than listening to what she was saying.

    I don’t think of you as being an “ageist, sexist, misogynist” person, but rather I think that on occasion some of your assumptions come across like that. I would ask you to consider that possibility.

  11. I’ll consider it, and also ask that you consider that not everybody sees the world in the way you do – you have leaped to an assumption about lots of people – most of them your friends – and attributed some pretty harsh motives and behaviours to them despite knowing that they are not like that at all. I appreciate that you may have felt you were defending Anna in much of what you’ve said here, but it really wasn’t something that needed to happen – nobody had, to my recollection, been at all nasty in what was said, nor did anybody treat her differently than they would have any other person due to her age or gender. I certainly didn’t, and i know neither did David, another participant in that thread. Worth a thought perhaps, because it seems to have caused you difficulty and that was certainly an unwanted and unwarranted byproduct of what was an interesting (and intense) debate on all sides.

  12. I have reread the famous thread (which you and all my FB friends will find here). Reading it at the time it felt “ageist, sexist, misogynist” because 3 middle aged men were in effect shouting at Anna, and not really listening to her answers. Having argued with you for ever on this thread and elsewhere about this, (and thinking about all of your styles of argument in general) I think that you did not pick out Anna for special treatment. So I have updated the title of the original post.

    However, I still feel that you haven’t really listened to what’s being said and engaged with the underlying argument, which is that other people’s ‘incorrect’ use of grammar shouldn’t be used as a weapon to win arguments against them. In this discussion we have both made significant grammatical errors, but we didn’t point them out to each other because they are not relevant. I am fairly sure that underneath all of this you agree with the principle, but you are too busy defending the beauty of ‘correct’ language to hear what is being said.

  13. Language IS a beautiful thing. It can also be an horrific, ugly thing. That’s what I find so fascinating about it. What I don’t feel, and which – for me, at least – is the fundamental difference in our positions: I have never used grammar as a ‘weapon’ to win arguments or belittle anybody. It may be (to paraphrase your good self) that you are too busy defending those you wrongly feel are being subjugated by my love of language to see that the perceived oppression simply doesn’t exist as far as I am concerned.

    Thanks for amending the OP and for realising that nobody was being at all aggressive towards Anna on the Facebook thread. I hate to think that this is an impression you’ve been carrying around about myself and others for so long.

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