Thursday, July 17, 2014

Grammar Totalitarianism

I keep getting linked to the recent Weird Al song, “Word Crimes.” On every conceivable form of social media. Multiple times a day. I have no doubt that if you’re an English teacher, translator, editor, or any other sort of wordsmith, you’ve had the same experience.

In his song, Weird Al parodies Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” by complaining about how some people write in English. It includes the usual grammar police hangups, such as the difference between it’s and its, literally and figuratively, what irony means, etc. Insults drip throughout.

First off, I am a child of a 80s. I like Weird Al, and what he’s done with his parody here is just as clever as ever. But what I don’t like are the things people assume about me and about English when they send me the song. So let me inform you:

1. I’m a developmental editor. I don’t deal with grammar.
2. When I was a copyeditor, I didn’t deal with grammar unless I was paid.
3. I certainly don’t care if your English is “improper.”

That’s right. I don’t care. And I find that the song’s justification of self-styled grammar police underscores a troubling issue, one perpetuated by those lucky enough to have a little English knowledge. People think that English is set in stone by some editor god at the beginning of time. The truth is this: English is changing, English is arbitary, and English is biased.

Dialect is English

Two months ago, Strange Horizons published a review of the groundbreaking Long Hidden anthology. The reviewer commented on one story by writing:
Troy L. Wiggins's "A Score of Roses" features heavy use of phonetic dialect, a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred—a shame, because the story underneath all the "chil'ren"s and "yo'self"s is charming.
This led to a Twittersplosion and an apology by Strange Horizons. Troy L. Wiggins wrote an extensive blog post about the silencing of dialect. Since then, many authors have eloquently spoken about culture, dialect, and voice in fiction. Sofia Samatar kept a list of blog entries on this topic. I encourage you to read them.

You may be wondering, what does the Long Hidden review have to do with a dangling participle or an Oxford comma? How does a review of dialect and its fallout apply to the concept of proper English?

What else do you think led to the characterization of dialect as a “literary trick”?

English is Not the Force

There is a belief in this world, false but powerful, that floating in the aether of wordsmithery there is a true, pure English that only people wise in the grammarforce know. Grammar jedi use it to instruct and correct; grammar sith use it to obfuscate and troll upon others.

As a former game manager for an online community, I’ve had a lot of experience with grammar sith. The educated 30-year-old player who wanted to make a 13-year-old cry, for instance. The bevy of trolls who used language mockery to drum outsiders away from their part of the map.

You may have, unwittingly, been party to behavior of this sort: bashing other people over the head with your feelings of self-worth, your Khan-like superior intellect. Ever told someone to “go back to pre-school,” as Weird Al does in his video? Ever questioned someone’s intelligence for pronouncing nuclear as nuke-u-lar? Ever targeted someone’s spelling in an online debate?

Using English isn’t about your intellect. There is no grammarforce.

How you write and speak English is primarily luck. You happen to know a commonly-understood grammar rule? Good for you. You had a specific educational experience, were in a position to remember it, and lived in a community that reinforced it. Do not let that knowledge become grammar snobbery. How you use English reflects your privilege more than it reflects your intellect. We use English in myriad ways, reflecting our region, class, culture, education, generation. You think there’s one grammarforce for that?

Dude. No.

English is Not a Unified Church

But Nessie! you might say. Surely there’s a set of rules out there on which most people agree! Isn’t that what proper English is?

There are indeed sets of agreed-upon rules in English. These are called style guides. But before you jump up and down in grammar jedi glee, let me list, as an illustration of simplicity and properness, all style guides for the English language:

Not. Because there are too many.

No deities were involved in
the creation of this book.
Moreover, on none of these guides is written, “Editor Deity made these rules.” There are no claims that an author dipped into the lava of the grammarforce to find the One True Style Guide. Style guides are tools used by wordsmiths to create consistency in English for specific disciplines or tasks. Every company has one; so do many university departments, government offices, and volunteer organizations. Even individual novels get style sheets.

There is no unified English grammar. English is far more flexible than most people realize. Many of the "rules" to which so many people hold are mere preferences. We use “normalcy” as often as “normality” because Warren G. Harding popularized the word. Ever written the word, “dwarves,” and thought it was ok? Tolkien. Honour in the UK is spelled honor in the US because of one man.

The only reason we have style guides at all is because the primary function of language is to communicate. Keep that in mind when some troll complains to you about a comma. If someone understands you (and it will never be all people), you’ve done the primary duty of language. You’ve communicated something about yourself. And since it is yourself, you should communicate in the way you know best. This includes dialect. 0R wr1T1n9 1n L337.

English is Biased

Now, before my comments asplode, let me head off a few objections:

* I'm not saying, writers, that we shouldn't strive to be more aware of bias in our writing. Language can easily become a tool of oppression.
* I'm not saying, teachers, that you shouldn't help students learn the language of academia. Communication is most useful when it is consistent within its discipline.
* I'm not saying, editors, that you need not edit to a particular style guide. I’m not advocating language nihilism. If someone pays me, I'll edit the hell out of that person's work, and find value in aiding communication.

Remember when you learned that all writing had bias? It was world-changing, wasn't it? To realize that a writer and the words you read were connected, slanted, had an opinion. Language rules have bias too--sometimes arbitrary, sometimes intentional. You don't need to read Nineteen Eighty-Four to know that language shapes culture as much as culture changes language.

So when you take your personal knowledge of English and think that it is somehow written in stone, that there’s a grammarforce that will back you up if you want to question your neighbor’s speech, think again. Beating someone down for how they express themselves shows you care more about how they say things than what they're saying. Sure, you're allowed to adore a well-written sentence. Goodness knows I do. But why waste your time trolling for word crimes?


Additional links on this topic:
* There is No 'Proper English' (Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2015)
* Dear Pedants: Your Favorite Grammar Rule is Probably Fake (JSTOR Daily, 17 Aug 2015)