English without shame

The Baltimore Sun

Karen Conlin, fellow editor and winner of this year’s Robinson Prize at ACES: The Society of Editing, tweeted today in exasperation:

“Grammar-shaming and -policing is why people say idiotic things to ALL of us when they find out we either teach English or are editors.

 “ ‘Oh, I'll have to watch what I say around you!’

 “Don't. IDGAF how you talk or write unless I'm PAID for it.”

Grammar shaming is a byproduct of our educational system, intentionally so. Here’s how it operates.

Standard written English is nobody’s native tongue—that’s why it has to be taught in schools. Because it is a prestige dialect, the one essential for advancement in business, government, and the professions, it is frequently assumed by teachers to be the “correct” English, all others being in some way ignorant or defective.

So teachers “correct” students for talking in their native dialects, making them feel either ashamed or rebellious. They wind up feeling uncertain about their native language, prone to grammar anxiety when they write or find themselves in certain social situations. Our schooling actually discourages fluency in many students.

I understand the process experientially. I was a good student, a teacher’s pet, the one who always had to have the correct answer. In childhood I talked like a book. (When my son, John Paul, was a small child talking in sentences, my mother called him “the pocket edition.”) It was not long before I was gratuitously correcting other people’s grammar and usage, and by the time I was a graduate student in English, I was a proper prig about language and usage.

When I read the late David Foster Wallace’s essay “Tense Present” in Harper’s, expanded and reprinted as “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster, I was initially carried away by his prose, as one is. I took at face value that he was, as Bryan Garner says, “a well-informed language-lover and word connoisseur.”

But over time I grew uneasy about his self-description: “There are lots of epithets for people like this — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is ‘SNOOT.’ The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what ‘dysphemism’ means and doesn't mind letting you know it. … A fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that listening to most people’s English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails.”

The Language Police, the Grammar Nazis, and the SNOOTS are, in fine, snobs, and I find it impossible to believe that language snobbery is nobler than snobbery about wealth, fashion, or family. It’s just one more method to score points against other people and prop up one’s self-regard.

I still talk like a book—that has become my idiolect—but, like Karen Conlin, I no longer go in for revising other people’s English unless I am being paid to do it. I retain the ample reservoir of scorn built up over the years, but I have learned to restrict it to people who have some pretension to being professionals: reporters, writers, self-appointed language authorities, public officials.

Really, you can talk as you like in conversation, write as you like, if not for publication. I am not your judge, and the people I do have to edit keep me fully occupied. English is a fine language. Use it without shame.

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