For most of my life, I was a grammar stickler. I learned the rules early in life, and I was quick to notify anyone who abused them. My dad called me “Miss Correcto Tape.” In my senior yearbook, my future plans mentioned spreading adverb usage to the masses.
How annoying I must’ve been to my friends and family.
In college, as I studied anthropology, my allegiance to Proper Grammar receded along with other judgmental attitudes. One of the central principles of the discipline is cultural relativism — the idea that one culture’s habits and customs shouldn’t be judged based on the values and logic of another culture. For instance, the focus on deference to elders in some Asian cultures is not better or worse than Americans’ focus on independence and initiative. It’s just different.
Language is part of culture, and I happened to grow up in white, middle-class suburbs, where I learned the dominant speech habits of this country. People from different economic classes or geographies who grew up communicating different varieties of English are not less intelligent or morally inferior to me.
But that’s the attitude I see among many grammar sticklers.
Take for instance, this image that was posted to a writing group I’m in on Facebook:
What is the purpose of these kind of comments?
Despite being inaccurate (take for example, a good friend of mine who didn’t go to college, doesn’t use proper grammar, and reads way more nonfiction books than I do), these comments seem to make sticklers feel good about themselves in looking down on others.
Have you ever asked yourself who makes the grammar rules? I’m pretty sure they were created by the white ruling class. And the people who police the rules are usually ones who see themselves reflected in that power structure.
I’m not saying that educators shouldn’t teach grammar in schools, but here’s another question: how often are people who speak Proper English expected to adapt their habits when around people who don’t? We expect the reverse all the time, including in schools.
Another writers group I’m in on Facebook had one of these discussions recently. The introductory comment was not super judgmental, but some of the responders seemed to think that improper grammar signaled the decline of human civilization.
At one point, I chimed in, saying, “Who makes the rules? Language evolves.”
I was promptly rebuffed:
The original post was on Oct. 22, and it’s still getting comments today. Clearly I won’t get anywhere in those criticism-fests, and it actually makes my stomach hurt to read stuff that exudes such condescension and negative energy. So I’m staying out of it next time. I feel safer expressing my thoughts here on my blog, where I hope I’ve attracted thoughtful, sensitive readers, even if you don’t agree with me about the merits of Proper Grammar.
But for the rest of the grammar sticklers, I have two words: chill out.
Uh-oh, that sentence ends in a preposition. I think I hear the grammar police coming …