On Descriptive Grammar and Banal Bigotry

I am forever being told that
prescriptive spelling is a tool of oppression.
And always, the way being defended,
just happens to be fucking American
– Tim

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Every few months or so a series of memes and critiques run through the social media mill, and they all sing the same refrain: “telling people how to write or speak correctly is authoritarian and bigoted”. The impulse is correct: We’ve all seen ‘proper grammar’ used to shit on a lower class, or justify a racist position. We all know that language is full of traps to figure out ‘who belongs’. But the simplicity of the “there is no such thing as proper English” critique is going to fuel this weekly writing exercise .

Anyone who’s read three of my sentences knows I’m not picky about grammar. I doubt I could be even if I wanted—I don’t have the skills or training. But I am trying to improve my writing, and so have been thinking about the role that grammar could play.

Behind every stupid critique is an even stupider debate, and this time the debate is between ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ grammar. Simplified to the point of offending my friends in linguistics, the debate looks like this:

On the one side, we have the prescriptivists –for them, grammar is a set of rules that you should follow; follow them, and you end up with proper writing.

On the other side, we have the descriptivists—for them, grammar is, at best, a way of describing how language is used. Grammar doesn’t tell you how you should write, rather, it tells you how people do write.

I am not stupid enough to venture into an academic debate—I assume actual linguists long ago thought through all of my complaints. But I am stupid enough to see how this debate informs memes and drunken arguments—that’s the level I operate on. And at this level, prescriptivists are identified as linguistic bullies who force everyone to try to speak the same way, while descriptivists are like ethical butterfly collectors, gathering dialects rather than insects.

Once this scene is set, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that “there’s no such thing as proper grammar” and that “people who believe in prescriptive grammar are bigots”. All bases are covered: descriptivism is more true, and, as a bonus, more ethical.

I get the critique, but it misses something important (training and improvement). Yes, there is no unchanging standard of correctness. Yes, your friend who remembers three rules from Latin class is annoying. Yes, while you shouldn’t say ‘literally’ when ‘figuratively’ is called for, gleefully correcting this error makes you a prick, and not a ‘grammar nerd’.

But this does not mean that all types of grammar correction are similarly tone deaf. It strikes me that the fantasy operating behind this critique, is a world divided into two camps: on the one hand, a university full of donnish and prissy bigots speaking in dead letter; and on the other, vibrant and dynamic dialects spoken by peasants in the fields and in the slums. Let us grant this fantasy: do we seriously think that these idealized dynamic communities of noble outsiders do not correct each other? I have been told that even the Scots have standards.

I suggest: correcting each other is an essential part of how good speech and writing develops. The English spoken in Newfoundland is as ‘proper’ as that spoken in Jamaica and Cambridge. But people in Newfoundland correct each other: that’s part of how language develops and defends itself. It should surprise no one that the vogue for descriptivism coincides with a massive homogenization of the English language.

As usual, the pop critique could use a healthy dose of pop dialectics. It’s half-way there: prescriptive grammar is dishonest, because it hides the fact that it enforces one particular description. But the critique misses the other half: good description would have to describe not just a dialect’s scaffolding (the rules), but also the mechanisms by which the building is maintained. And this, my darlings, is where correcting each other comes in (“you sound like a pretentious wanker” serves just as well as “you have dropped the ‘u’ from colour”).

Giving up on proper grammar is fine. Giving up on better grammar—which requires correcting each other—is not. Because hovering in the background of these cheap critiques is the belief that “all that matters is clarity—if you get your idea across, that’s good enough.” You don’t need a thorough critique of neoliberalism to see that this is a depressing ideology that sucks the life out of speech, and leaves behind only a ‘marketplace of ideas’.

Here a dose of pedantry is called for. Otherwise, we will be stuck in conversations sustained only by their content.

 

 

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49 thoughts on “On Descriptive Grammar and Banal Bigotry

  1. I admit it; sometimes late at night, when the moon is full and I’m cranky, I troll posts and offer unwanted grammatical advice. The latest of these was tryst spelled as “trist”. The author replied that she got her spelling from Urban Dictionary, and I nearly died from shock and horror.

    Liked by 10 people

  2. From a linguistic p.o.v, what is your opinion on popular slang being respected as modern vernacular? Obviously there should be a proper use of the structures of language, which are after all very beautiful if nothing else. Should we not appreciate the evolution of language and culture and allow the rules to be slightly bent for evolving self expression?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. A fuller definition of descriptive grammar also includes the ways in which different forms are used, the contexts they are used in, the purposes they are used for, and the likely effects of using those forms. Descriptivists (like me, I’ll admit) absolutely do not say “anything goes,” but rather, they see a good descriptive grammar as one that would lay out the choices and their likely consequences, and then admit that the use of any particular form is a social choice. So, for example, descriptivists wouldn’t say that is any “better” or “worse” than or , but they would also not hesitate to say that is socially stigmatized, that it’s use signifies casual speech, and typically casual speech in certain demographics, and that it is essentially not found at all in formal writing. That way, if someone were learning about English, they could make an informed choice about whether they should use or not, and if so, how, when, and why. That’s all described a lot more in detail here, too: https://rantinglinguist.wordpress.com/

    So, all that to say, most descriptivists would be in full support of “correcting” each other’s language, but it would be an exercise in finding the language that best suits the communicative goal at hand. If your goal is to write a convincing, formal business proposal, then we could meaningfully talk about which words and constructions are better suited to that purpose. If you’re trying to get with someone at the club, then a different set of words and constructions would be better. Descriptivism is not at all opposed to correction; it just is context-sensitive instead of assuming that one form is better across contexts by law or by rule.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. Hmm…. damn. I tried to use the brackets for graphemes to write my example words, but apparently that cut out the words entirely. My apologies.

      There’ll be a lot of quotation marks, but this is what I had originally tried to write:

      …So, for example, descriptivists wouldn’t say that “ain’t” is any “better” or “worse” than “isn’t” or “aren’t,” but they would also not hesitate to say that “ain’t” is socially stigmatized, that its use signifies casual speech, and typically casual speech in certain demographics, and that it is essentially not found at all in formal writing. That way, if someone were learning about English, they could make an informed choice about whether they should use “ain’t” or not, and if so, how, when, and why.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Good, interesting post. But I’ll admit – I’m one of those people who cringes at the modern use of “literally”. I don’t get hung up on grammar, really, but we all have words and phrases that drive us mad. I’ll offer up another one – seems like journalists, writers, and TV anchors can’t get through an article or broadcast these days without saying “double down”.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I try to follow the school of ‘How do I want this to sound when read out loud?’ method. Which is what grammar was supposed to be to begin with, need a half-breath to catch your breath? Maybe make a tone change? That’s a comma. Need a full breath, or want a point to sink in? Full stop.

    That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be some common grounds, which is what prescriptive grammar tries, and frustrates, at applying. But, the bigger issue to me is the sound of the document either literally out loud, or at the very least, in my head. I want my text and words to flow, sometimes they’ll be thick as brush. Sometimes they’ll be short; and sometimes they’ll be choppy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Okay, I just have to say this. The function of a comma is not to indicate a pause in speech. As someone studying creative writing and who does a lot of peer editing, this is a misconception I see a lot. A comma separates dependent clauses or items in a list (this is by no means a comprehensive explanation of the function of a comma, but that’s the gist of it). That’s what the whole ‘Eats shoots and leaves’ thing is about. Without a comma, it means that shoots and leaves are what is eaten. With a comma (‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ or ‘Eats, shoots, and leaves’), it means that someone ate, shot, and left. The function of grammar (and by this I mean word order, punctuation, etc.) is to clarify meaning. Which is why it’s not such a big deal, for example, if you say ‘Which is what grammar is supposed to be to begin with, need a half-breath to catch your breath?’ instead of ‘Which is what grammar is supposed to be to begin with. Need a half-breath to catch your breath?’ because it doesn’t change the meaning. But if you don’t understand (whether consciously or unconsciously) the function of the punctuation you’re using, you’re bound to make a mistake one day, like writing ‘Let’s eat Joe!’ instead of ‘Let’s eat, Joe!’.

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  6. I used to help children to read at my son’s school, and was told by the headmistress not to correct them if they made a mistake, as it ‘interrupted their flow’. Perhaps I was offending their human rights to put them on the correct path? Let’s hope that as they grow, they learn to compose a decent looking letter to a prospective employer. IMHO we need to learn the basics of good reading and writing skills, but how we use them in later life is up to us.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I agree wholeheartedly. Language serves as a means of communication. It’s something we create in order to convey ideas, emotions, information etc. Naturally, in order to do so, we have to agree on particular structures that will be shared by everybody. One of these structures is grammar. Grammar isn’t something trivial we can do away with, because if we do such a thing, communication will fail. Grammar helps us organize our thoughts and express ourselves with precision and clarity so that when we speak our message will be understood.

    There’s an ocean of difference between regional/social dialects and wrong use of grammar that is the result of ignorance or lack of education. Regional/social dialects enrich the language and sometimes some of their vocabulary or structures pass into the standard language. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. They are an endless fountain of linguistic richness and broadening among other things. And those who insist that they are not the “correct” language” simply don’t know what they are talking about.

    I’ve always viewed such debates as laughable because the idea that there’s no such thing as correct grammar is usually used as a cheap excuse by people who do not want to improve themselves and, instead of acknowledging their shortcomings, they’re constantly coming up with flimsy, self-indulgent arguments.

    http://lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred.wordpress.com

    Liked by 1 person

  8. As a linguist, I don’t disagree with your premise. Linguistic communities have always engaged in self-correction as part of the natural evolution of a language (interestingly, one of the most powerful causes of language change is when this goes wrong via misperception). And every language absolutely has grammar rules. But what annoys me isn’t so much when prescriptivists “correct” someone on the internet, but when people don’t understand what “grammar” is in the first place. A spelling mistake (e.g. they’re vs. their) isn’t a grammar mistake. It’s a spelling mistake. Same goes for punctuation. A misplaced apostrophe has nothing to do with grammar. Don’t get me wrong – they are mistakes. If one of my students misspells “affect” on a paper, I will point it out. And I know this might seem like a linguist splitting hairs over semantics, but I do think it’s dangerous to conflate mechanics and grammar, because if you see an obvious spelling error, then hear an annoying linguist complain that “blah, blah, blah descriptive grammar good, prescriptive bad,” it comes off like we’re being irrational.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Really a great article, I honestly didn’t know that this kind of approach was also in the UK/US/etc..
    I am a student in Economics from Italy and it’s a pain in the a** when someone on the net comes out with “hey learn English, idiot” for just a little mistake.
    For what concerns my country (Italy) and my language there would be loads of other things to say… in case I decide to write an article on this on my new blog, would you mind me quoting this post? Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A wonderful article. I sit somewhere in the middle on this to be honest. Bad grammar and spelling mistakes annoy me (although I know I make them myself) but you do have to be a bit lax depending on the context. On my blog although I try to stay ‘within the rules’ I also want it to sound more like I’m having a conversation with the reader and I wouldn’t be 100% grammatically correct whilst talking to someone face to face all the time. Particularly being from Yorkshire so ‘the’ gets shortened a lot and I do sometimes slip into using ‘mesen’ instead of ‘myself’ (though I wouldn’t type that).

    On the other hand rules do need sticking to more than ever with the internet; we’re very lucky in that so many other countries learn English that we get to be lazy and not learn their languages. So if we want traffic and to get our points across we need to be accomodating. It doesn’t matter how fluent someone is in a second language, it can easily confuse them if the rules are suddenly abandoned. I certainly have struggled to learn French as I’ve been trying it the usual way of learning words and then wondering how on earth you actually put them together to make sense to a French person and I have failed miserably! I got on much better learning German when I was at school simply because the teacher could give me some general rules to follow so that I could at least form a coherant sentence.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @polishedpevil: I agree with all that you’ve said above, though I can’t help being a bit mischievous … am not usually a Grammar Nazi, but wrong spellings hurt the eyes if you know what I mean…. as in “coherent” 🙂 Another thing … when the grammar is not right, it takes me longer to make sense of the written word. It truly fuddles me 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I always find discussions like these interesting. It’s a difficult balance—drawing a line with stylistic errors (like the comma splice or sentence fragment.) I personally view stylistic errors as a tool for pacing, and adding a “human” feel to writing. In everyday speech, we don’t always talk in perfect sentences. Where you have to be careful, is sacrificing clarity for the sake of style. Writers (especially in fiction) shouldn’t feel too confined by the rules of the language, but need to be aware of them so they can be strategically broken.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Has anyone ever read a book written in a mediocre fashion with bad grammar and spellings? Like the wannabe writers generally do? It offends my linguistic sensibilities. You can use a lot of words and still convey nothing or you can use them minimally and leave the readers with a sense of euphoria. This calls for the correct use of key words to generate the most impact. When I read the first page of any book and the style of writing doesn’t “get me”, I usually don’t bother reading further. And when I find grammatical and spelling errors, it hurts. Most people don’t bother proof reading their own posts or books, which is a crime in the literary world. It shows disrespect for the readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. While I believe writers should aim to the best of their ability it always annoys me when I see some grammar pedant tearing a writers work apart because a couple of apostrophes are misplaced or the wrong word is used. These things are trivial, so long as a piece does not leave us scratching our heads and trying to guess what the author indends to convey. As a creative writer I often take liberties with grammar particularly when writing direct speech*. One might say therefore that I am handing my critics a stick with which to beat me 🙂 but when told my writing is lousy I simply remind the commenter that I am not submitting college or high school projects for grading so if they can’t comment on the content of the piece will they kindly eff off.

    *An example, a few months ago I fell out with a moderator over the speech of a character from Swansea, a city in Wales where the locals have some very idiosyncratic usages. Typically they will say things like “I has two keys in my pocket,” or “He have gone to the pub.”
    While it can be annoying to write in a local dialect (which can be close to incomprehensible) a few nods to local speech mannerisms goes a long way to giving characters authenticity.

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  14. “Getting your ideas across” requires good grammar. Standards and conventions are always changing a bit, but for the most part they remain standards that people use. So if you wanna write a book….

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  15. An interesting piece about something that tortures me while I’m writing. Even after completing many advanced courses on grammar, I can’t figure out the use of the article ‘the’. Use it…lose it…aaghh!

    Like

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