CC photo courtesy of the_munificent_sasquatch on Flickr

Why I Stopped Being a Grammar Snob

(And why you probably should, too)

I used to be a proud grammar snob. I secretly reveled in my schadenfreude when people muddled their (there? they’re?) homonyms. I had inflexible opinions on the subject of comma use. I laughed at people who used “whom” incorrectly.

And then I took a linguistics class that changed my whole outlook, not just on grammar but also on the social impact of language. It sounds dramatic, I know, but in university you’re allowed to have dramatic epiphanies.

The class was called “Introduction to the English Language” which is a boring title. I doubt many people would have taken it except that it was mandatory for English majors at my university. Not only did it sound boring but it also seemed a little ridiculous. An intro to English? Most of us were native speakers. We’d chosen to study English literature. We held obnoxious opinions about punctuation. It seemed a little late for an introduction to the English language.

It turned out to be one of my favourite classes ever.

I had gone in expecting to be force fed academic dogma on the “right way” to use English. I imagined a man in tweed railing against the use of slang and the deplorable state of, like, teenage vernacular. Even for a self-professed grammar snob it sounded a bit much. You see, the true mark of a grammar snob is she doesn’t like to be told how to use grammar herself; she just likes to tell other people that they’re wrong.

The prof did turn out to be dressed in tweed (he was British and his uniform was a three piece tweed suit) but other than that he bore no resemblance to the pedantic guy I’d expected. Instead he called all our assumptions about language into question. The lectures were about the way words are invented, and how slang can be creative and even poetic. We examined the perceived value of different accents. We discussed the need for a third, genderless pronoun for those who identify as neither a “he” nor a “she”. One morning, in his clipped Home Counties accent, the prof opened class by saying very calmly: “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits. You might recognize these as the words that George Carlin says you can’t say on television. Why do these words have power?” We spent the rest of the class discussing the sound structure of curse words and why it feels good to drop an f-bomb.

The most important thing I learned, though, was that there is no such thing as “standard English” with a capital E. Instead there are many “englishes” with a lower case E. There is the english of the Caribbean and the english of the southern United States and the english of Oxbridge and the english rappers use in their music. Traditionally we’re taught that one of these is better than the rest, but in this class I learned that that’s an arbitrary distinction and not necessarily the case.

Why? Well, there are two schools of thought when it comes to how we should use language. One is “prescriptive” and it’s backed by grammar snobs and the kind of people who froth at the mouth over the decline of “the King’s English”. The other is “descriptive” and it’s more about accepting that how people use language is how language works. A prescriptivist believes in the idea of standard English and sees mistakes everywhere. A descriptivist sees many englishes, and none of them are standard.

Of course there’s got to be a happy medium somewhere. Without a set of common rules we can’t communicate effectively. But does it really further communication to obsessively monitor someone who said “me and Sarah are going to the store” instead of “Sarah and I”? No.

The way people speak and write is based on a lot of factors. Geography, for one. The various communities you belong to are also a big influence. Most of us belong to several communities and speak a little differently in the context of each one, whether that community is found at work, on a sports team, in a particular ethnic group, or in a religious community. We’re all fluent in more than one english, for example the language of our peer group and the language of our parents’ generation.

And then there are the two factors that have possibly the biggest impact on how we use language: education and socioeconomic status. When you judge people for what you consider to be poor grammar, you’re judging them for not being as good as you at something that might be a challenge because they didn’t have the advantages or experience you did. Maybe they haven’t had the luxury of worrying about their grammar. Maybe their use of language is right in line with their community. Maybe you’re just being a pedantic, prescriptivist jerk.

I still think grammar is important, but I no longer think there is one set of rules. Sure, I have personal preferences about the way I choose to use language. However when it comes to other people I find that what they have to say is more important and interesting than how they say it.

These days, I’m a recovering grammar snob. Commas are still my kryptonite, but I’m working on it.