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.

 

 

62 thoughts on “On Descriptive Grammar and Banal Bigotry

  1. “Giving up on proper grammar is fine. Giving up on better grammar—which requires correcting each other—is not.”

    I wonder what proper grammar will be in a few years after emojis have completely taken over and we are reduced to electronic rune stones and hieroglyphics.

    Like

  2. Love this post. I although am I in the descriptive camp I truly see a need for both. As a teacher in Australia I am required by law to teach grammar in both ways. Yet what is interesting is many teachers don’t yet know how to teach in a descriptive way.

    Like

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