‘Good Grammar’ Comes From Privilege, Not Virtue

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The hunger to justify underdog grammar details—beloved Oxford comma included—has an ugly side. It can hurt people.

A punctuation mark has a fandom. As an editor, I should be giddy. A nuance of language is having its day! But my gut has drawn itself down.

I’m talking, of course, about the Oxford comma and those wild sentences that prove the universe will lose its bearings without it. Like, “We invited the alpacas, my mom and my dad,” in which the absence of a comma after “mom” suggests that the person speaking is ‪the offspring of mountain camels. Or, “His tour included encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector,” which leaves open the possibility that Mandela led a literally magical existence.

The same zeitgeist drives the recent popularity of the “grammar vigilante” of Bristol, England. This hooded figure has been committing vandalism to purge errant apostrophes from storefronts, claiming that incorrect possessives are the real crime. Sticklers around the world have cheered his efforts. A number of editors, however, could not bring themselves to support his signage-disrupting wrist-slapping.

And it’s not just the Bristol bloke who speaks of grammar in terms of wrongdoing. The Weird Al song “Word Crimes” goes off on a litany of language peeves and was well-received by his fans and word nerds alike, although it was criticized by several language professionals. The idea that not just good words but meticulously good words in English make you a good person has been around a few centuries. In Word by Word, lexicographer Kory Stamper traces it back to early English grammar guides:

“. . . literacy (particularly formal education) was booming in the eighteenth century, and it wasn’t too long before ‘good grammar’ became the dividing line between the educated, well poised, polite, and morally upright and the ignorant, vulgar, and morally compromised.”

This view more or less remains the philosophy of holdout pedants and well-meaning book lovers. Despite the protestations of editors and linguists, it’s still mainstream to believe that the strict enforcement of standardized squiggles in English is a linchpin not only of communication but also of virtue.

So I’m here to hammer it in: That belief is wrong. It’s technically wrong, because the fetishization of specific uses of punctuation marks does not actually improve communication. Worse, it’s an unfair judgment of people who, through no fault of their own, don’t have the background and resources needed to produce what’s widely seen as good English. I’d like to wrap those resources into one idea here: language privilege.

It’s still mainstream to believe that the strict enforcement of standardized squiggles in English is a linchpin not only of communication but also of virtue.

I so get that it can be delicious to watch an utterance dramatically transform according to the orientation of a tiny piece of itself. But that hunger for the justification of those underdog details has an ugly side. It can hurt people.

First off, the Oxford comma is not a grammar issue but a decision made and stood by for the sake of consistency — a matter of what editors call style or usage. A sentence without the Oxford comma is not wrong the way a sentence without subject-verb agreement is wrong. That’s why the goofy misinterpretations blamed on the missing comma look wrong only if you force yourself to ignore common sense. Most of the time, the absence of the Oxford comma presents no stumbling block at all: “red, white and blue.” Otherwise, all the news stories written according to the Associated Press Stylebook would have sown chaos by now.

There do exist situations that favor one style decision over another to avoid confusion. Grammar news followers will point to a recent court decision that hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in a law. But the lesson to draw from that story, and examples like it, is not that we should all unthinkingly hew to a specific style choice or else risk humiliation and ruin. What it does show is the importance of awareness. A careful legislator would have used the comma not because the comma is inherently clarifying, but because its use would have served that specific sentence. Plus, the back-and-forth of the case lends itself to a richer analysis of the implications of small language choices. Parallelism! Asyndeton! No need to cram the tale into the old mold when there’s more to it.

Other points of style evoke similar tensions for similarly suspect reasons. If you’re told that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition or to start a sentence with a conjunction, be aware that no credible authority on grammar has the right to punish you for those choices, unless a style guide you are required to follow forbids them. A lot of these usage rules are less about practicality than about gatekeeping.

As for actual grammar problems, grammatical Standard English is the result of a confluence of privileges, not virtues. I edit papers for immigrant cancer doctors, and I can’t imagine berating them just for messing up a word. Not knowing English as your native language is neither a choice nor a reflection on character, yet that starting point can be a barrier to professional success as well as basic respect in the United States. This friction can linger for much of a lifetime. My mother spoke Tagalog before she became fluent in English, and she is not always sure her English words have the connotations she intends, which can sometimes make her hesitate to express opinions. These barriers aren’t insurmountable — my mom points out that two of our Filipina relatives have authored books in English — but they aren’t inconsequential.

There’s also nothing inherently wrong with speaking a dialect other than Standard English, such as African American Vernacular English, another frequent target of judgment. Adherence to Standard English doesn’t predict your worth, but it does have a lot to do with nationality, culture, and race.

Grammatical Standard English also requires education, and the more the better. The ability to not only use Standard English but dance your way through a well-placed “whom” takes practice, and duration and quality of education reinforce those skills. But not everyone can afford to go to college or live in a neighborhood with good schools. In this way, grammar can serve as a surrogate for class, too.

Another factor that contributes to grammatical English is time. It takes free time to write coherent Facebook rants with understandable pronoun antecedents. It takes time to treat yourself to the language workout of a to-read pile. Having enough time for grammar oversight also translates into having enough hands on deck at a publication, which, considering the copy editor layoffs of the past few years, is not always the case for smaller but still-valuable media outlets.

As someone managing mental illness, I also want to account for the variable conditions inside our heads that can stand between having an idea and making a grammatical sentence. A number of language disorders, like dyslexia, or aphasia from a stroke, impair the ability to write or speak. Some mental illnesses worsen communication skills: Schizophrenia may be accompanied by language dysfunction, and depression can at times make it impossible to express yourself.

Even people without these disorders deal with worries — described by the proposed theory of mental burden — that momentarily put them in a disordered state of mind that could easily botch the execution of grammatical utterances. Heck, fatigue can make us less articulate and pain can make us less articulate, yet no less deserving to be heard.

On top of all this, the parameters of successful communication are incredibly sensitive to social context. English speakers can and should eschew so-called good grammar when speaking in certain registers, such as the casual way of talking you fall into among friends — loosely structured, laden with in-jokes. It’s also okay to bend the rules when pushing the boundaries of language in banter or in art.

This is fine if you’re living in 2014 and are surrounded by dorks. See? Context.

Even within the bounds of Standard English and in accordance with a strict style, precepts can clash, forcing you to choose between them. Editors strive to impart clarity and concision, but sometimes the clearest way of saying something is not the most concise. The beloved Oxford comma should be set aside if its presence does harm by, for example, creating an appositive phrase, as editor Tom Freeman points out. Reworking a popular example, Freeman shows that the sentence “This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God,” becomes easier to understand as “This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand and God.”

Don’t get me wrong — I know that mutually agreed-on standards are the bedrock of language. But standards go only as far as the purpose and context they are designed for, and language is more than resilient enough to withstand departures from the center line. That’s how it grows.

One of my favorite bits in Word by Word is this: “Everyone knows that adverbs answer the questions ‘who?’ ‘what?’ ‘when?’ ‘where?’ ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ but few people realize that conjunctions and prepositions can do the same thing.” I don’t mean the insight. It’s the usage I love. That there is a list, in a book that dissects words down to their guts, and there aren’t any commas. Nor would you want there to be any.

Good communication is a constantly moving target and a cultural construction. Let’s not freeze our expectations in a place that puts marginalized people at another undeserved disadvantage.

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