Don’t be a snob: “How people use language is how language works”

The quote above is one of the central points Mary Rolf makes in her excellent post, “Why I Stopped Being a Grammar Snob.” In the post Rolf, a self-described recovering English major and former grammar snob, discusses the major lessons she learned from a course entitled “Introduction to the English Language.” Rolf’s shift in perspective is something anyone who aspires to maintain a healthy level of behavioral self-regulation and humility can take to heart. But her arguments about the hierarchies inherent in grammar and the negative impact of grammar snobbery strike me as particularly crucial for those of us who are educators to bear in mind as we encourage our students to learn to express their ideas and arguments in writing. Below are some of the highlights from Rolf’s initial post, as well as from a follow-up post in which Rolf addresses the “grammar police” directly.

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.

A prescriptivist believes in the idea of standard English and sees mistakes everywhere. A descriptivist sees many englishes, and none of them are standard.

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.

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.

We don’t live in a grammar police state. Vigilantism clobbers the creative and communicative intention of language because it derails the conversation. And who are you to pass judgement on other people at all? Language belongs to all of us.

Language and grammar seem to be one of the few areas we still celebrate intolerance. Grammar Police, you can be so self-righteous that you’ve managed to warp grammar into a moral thing. You’re right or you’re wrong, and if you’re wrong you’re not just stupid, but also bad and the Grammar Police has license to judge you accordingly. No. This is denies the very essence of language, which is that it’s organic and continually evolving.