Recently, a Facebook friend of mine posted one of those smug little memes laying out common English mistakes.
You know the type: a handy little chart laying out your/you’re, there/their/they’re and to/too/two distinctions.
Topping it it off with an uptight rant about how she’s tired of younger generations no longer respecting the propriety of the English language (as though everyone born before the 90’s spoke perfectly), she mentioned seeing lots of good ideas she refused to repost because atrocious grammar ruined them.
But it didn’t stop there: Several of her buddies jumped in comment about how right she is to be in such a huff. People just have no respect for English anymore, damn it, and we’ve got to DO SOMETHING about it before the entire language goes to hell in a hand basket.
Well, I thought I’d take a moment to play Devil’s advocate on this issue, partly because I’m one of the last people you’d expect to defend bad grammar.
I majored in English, you see, which kind of makes me a de facto guardian of language integrity.
Nevertheless, even I get tired of hearing people rant about language errors. Here are ten reasons grammar nazis get on my last nerve:
- 1. It’s insulting to assume everyone should already be experts in my major
When people find out I majored in an English, they tend to make jokes about watching their grammar from now on, suddenly seeing me as a bespectacled harpy wielding a red pen, just waiting to pounce on any mistake.
But there’s an infinite amount of information in this world: we can’t learn it all. Just as I don’t understand principles of electric engineering, I don’t expect everyone else to know what a dangling modifier or a spliced comma means. I went to school for that.
- 2. No one wants to be under constant scrutiny
Look, I KNOW the difference between to and two too, but sometimes I’ll write the wrong one when I’m half-asleep or in a hurry. Sometimes autocorrect messes with your dispatch, and sometimes your eyes just filter out little mistakes. I don’t want people jumping on my every error, so I’m not gonna jump on yours.
Because that’s tedious as hell.
Besides, there’s a big difference between writing up a formal paper that you’re revising several times and sending off a quick text or Facebook update. We can’t always be “on.”
- 3. Different level of formality are appropriate in different contexts
On that note, sometimes formal language is appropriate (like in academic papers), while at other times it comes off as stilted and pretentious.
It’s probably best to show off your mastery of “whom” in business correspondence, but it’s completely out of place in a rock song. The Rolling Stones didn’t say they “couldn’t get any satisfaction” for good reason.
- 4. Many language rules are arbitrary, anyway
People talk about the ridiculousness of using double negatives, as though anyone with good sense would realize that saying you “haven’t got no shoes” means you have shoes, because 1-1=0.
But that’s just how we do it in English. In French, you’re SUPPOSED to make double negatives because it’s viewed as making various parts of the sentence agree.
These rules exist to make sure everyone’s on the same page. It’s like deciding we should all drive on the right- or the left-hand side of the road.
It’s not that one way is inherently better than the others, it’s just a way to avoid confusion.
- 5. And the rules aren’t consistent
One time, some British people were making fun of Americans for not pronouncing the “H” on words like “herb.”
We don’t pronounce the “h” in “herb” in American English, unless it’s the name “Herb” (a nickname for Herbert). Well, to the British, this apparently sounds low-class, like the dropped “h’s” in Cockney English (“I ‘ave no ‘at on me ‘ead”).
Please forgive that cringe-worthy Cockney attempt, but I think you get my point.
Makes sense, except we don’t have Cockney English in America. I shot back that since the word “herb” comes from French, where they don’t pronounce h’s, it made more sense to drop it anyway.
But of course, that was just my patriotism being riled by British mockery. In truth, neither way makes any more sense than the other. It’s just a convention, like everything else. Try asking someone from the UK to explain their pronunciation of “waistcoat,” if you want to see logic go pear-shaped.
- 6. Even language experts don’t agree
Apparently, it’s now officially okay to use the word “their” to show single possession. You know what I’m talking about… we used to use “he” and him” to talk about a default person, even when that person might be female.
People who found this sexist (which it kind of is) could say “one” instead, but that can sound pretentious.
So we end up with these over-labored sentences like, “when someone wants to return his or her books, he or she must place his or her books into the return slot.”
We casually started saying “their,” like “they can return their books,” but this was technically an error because you’re giving a single person a plural possessive.
But not anymore. Now it’s officially okay. Depending on (to) who(m) you talk (to), it’s also okay not to say “an” before words like “history,” because it’s antiquated.
- 7. Because languages change
People who fret about reckless youths messing up our glorious language seem to believe there is one pure linguistic standard to which they should be adhering, a Perfect English set down in the Golden Times, an ideal English we should be staying as close to as humanly possible.
But that’s just silly. Languages change. The more we use them, the more they adapt to our needs. Notice how the “to be” and “to have” verbs are always irregular in foreign languages. It’s because they’re used the most.
If you have any doubt, just check out an untranslated version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’s nearly unreadable, and that’s not even considered Old English. It’s Middle English. Old English sounds like German.
And Shakespeare is considered Early Modern English, yet it still throws us for a loop. We don’t use the words “thou” and “thine” anymore, but they used to be a common part of our language (they were the informal way to say “you,” by the way, but we think they’re formal because they sound old).
Our language has been changing for thousands of years and will continue to change as long as we’re still using it. Get over it.
8. And English is still changing
I personally believe that the word “whom” is on its way out, like “thou” before it. It’s nice to know when to use it if you want to impress people (use “whom” when “who” isn’t the subject of the sentence), but we don’t really need it anymore.
I also think it’s just a matter of time before everyone starts using “myself” instead of “me.” Why? Because that’s what everyone says when they’re trying to sound fancy.
I think there are curiously competing streaks in American social psychology. We are simultaneously anti-intellectualists (considering the white towers of academia highly suspect) who also believe that anyone who makes a lot of money obviously knows what they are doing.
So… we are starting to look to “business-ese” as a guide to how we should be talking and writing. Many Americans believe business talk IS formal talk, as if English majors and business majors agree on what constitutes proper grammar.
Nothing could be further from the truth. English majors want to remove stumbling blocks to understanding. They like removing “dead wood,” or unnecessary words from sentences. They only want to use as lumbering a word as necessary to get across your specific meaning. They don’t say “utilize” when they mean “use,” because anything that complicates the grammar compromises the idea.
Businesspeople do the opposite. They are masters of Baffling with Bullshit by trying to sound as important as they can. This means their language is rife with euphemism and multiplied syllables. Why say “use” when you can get a full three syllables out of “utilize?” Telling people to utilize the facilities, instead of use the toilet, nets you four whole extra syllables.
And thus the word “me” becomes “myself,” doubling both the syllables and sense of indirectness without adding anything to the meaning of the sentence. It’s just a matter of time before everyone’s onboard.
- 9. Because people falsely assume your grammar usage reflects your intelligence
Out of all the possible ways we could use our language, the experts have agreed that one particular dialect represents the “right” one.
And how closely your speech and writing conform to this dialect shows people how intelligent you are.
People mostly speak and write the way the people they grew up around spoke and wrote. Swedish kids learn Swedish. Italian kids learn Italian. Kids in Alabama learn English with the local accent and so do kids living in the Bronx.
Your brain doesn’t automatically pick up a conventionally-recognized “correct” speech pattern based on the sophistication of your DNA, you just learn to make sounds like the ones you hear around you every day.
If you happen to grow up in an educated family that speaks the Queen’s English with an upper class accent, you have an enormous advantage because you’ll automatically sound intelligent and sophisticated to everyone around you.
If you grew up speaking a salty local dialect, you can learn to speak and write in the way your society deems “intelligent.” It’s a good idea, because people judge you for the way you speak, whether it’s fair or logical or not.
But it isn’t real. Or fair.
- 10. Because language snobbery is classist
I believe language snobbery, like so many other things, ultimately comes down to preserving the status quo.
By this, I mean those at the top need to keep finding reasons to justify their place at the top before the pyramid below them starts itching for change.
If you can silence people without the right background or education to speak in a certain accepted way, you can effectively quiet the masses. You can embarrass people by making them feel ignorant and unworthy, the same way you can shame them out of nice restaurants with a confusing array of forks.
I think what bothered me most about my friend’s post was the way she talked about how people sometimes had an interesting message, but she couldn’t support it when their language was embarrassingly bad.
To me, this read as: You may have great insight, an interesting idea, or profound story, but if you don’t sound like the type of person I’m used to, you need to shut up.
And I’m not comfortable with that line of thinking.