Lowest common denominator

When I was an English major, and later a copy editor, people who found out what I was up to would say, “I guess I’d better watch my language.” This is what generations of schooling have accomplished: making us nervous about the use of our own language.

While the point of schooling is to teach the young how to operate in the dialect known as Standard English, or formal written English, a necessity in business, government, and the professions, traditional teaching has included disparagement and stigmatization of colloquial English and non-standard dialects.


This tendency has very old roots. When the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Robert Lowth, Bishop of London and Fellow of the Royal Society, published A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762, his intent was to demonstrate to the rising middle class “polite” and “correct” grammar—how to talk like the quality.

That conflation of “polite” and “correct” has been ticking away steadily ever since, with two principal consequences: an understanding of English grammar as a set of traps to avoid, and a pervasive status anxiety rising from fear of being shamed for a blunder or use of one’s native dialect.

There is an additional wrinkle. Status anxiety makes language snobbery possible, and occasionally profitable. It crops up when people pounce triumphantly on trivial and easy-to-spot mistakes—it’s/its, there/their/they’re—though, let’s face it, mastering those distinctions does not require the level of intellectual oomph that, say, calculus and organic chemistry do.

The snobbery is most naked when people go on about the way that the schools, the dictionaries, the linguists are pandering to the lowest common denominator. To them, a typographical error, a spelling mistake, a minor solecism, a colloquialism, a non-standard usage are like fingernails on a chalkboard. Their sensitivity makes the protagonist of “The Princess and the Pea” look like a vagrant sleeping rough.

It’s tiresome to have to repeat myself, and doubtless tiresome for you to hear it again, but the word has not gotten through.

Item: There are lots of Englishes, and Standard English, though useful in many contexts, is not the One True Correct English.

Item: Snobbery about language is no more noble than snobbery about ancestry, wealth, physical beauty, or any other ephemeral thing.

Lighten up.