To Whom It May Concern: How to Chill Out About Grammar and Get on With Your Life

by Diana Koehm

grammar-390029_1280If you’ve made it to this little corner of the internet, odds are that you share a profound love of the English language with the author of this post. For me there’s no greater thrill than discovering the exact arrangement of words and sounds necessary to create a precise reaction. If language is the rich and layered tapestry we are so in awe of, then grammar is certainly the thread holding that tapestry together.

A system of grammar naturally develops in a language to preserve clarity of communication. In today’s literary climate, “proper” grammar is essential to survive in the job market. Never underestimate the power of a misplaced comma to screw you over. Believe me, this is coming from first-hand experience.

I don’t particularly mind that I was so harshly berated on my comma. If ever there were an appropriate venue for grammar sticklerism, it’s an interview for an editing position. Inappropriate venues? Almost everywhere else. You need look no further than the nearest twitter feed to know exactly what I’m talking about.

Grammar snobbery relies on a brand of racism and classism that’s as old as the language itself. Any language, including the English language, is composed of different dialects, speech patterns, accents, and local color. This is how language works and is supposed to work, but we’ve been taught since grade school that there is one proper form of English and other forms are mere bastardizations. The fact of the matter is that no one dialect of English is inherently more proper than any other. And if the sole purpose of grammar is to preserve the clarity of communication, then it truly doesn’t matter whether or not someone sprinkles their speech and writing with dangled prepositions and double negatives. Because everyone will still know what they mean.

Of course, many will simply respond to this argument by pointing to the dictionary, to which I defer to Melissa A. Fabello, who asks, “Who wrote the dictionary, though?”

Whoever controls society controls language, and whoever controls language controls who is intelligent and who is not. I grew up in the deep WASP country of suburban New England to a middle class family. I speak “proper” American English—the kind spoken on TV and tested on the SATs. But even my speech is riddled with the idiosyncrasies of the culture I was raised in. Walk into any English classroom in the high school I grew up in and count the number of times the word “like” is used in the middle of a sentence. Using “like” as a placeholder is a bizarre, illogical, purely improper thing to do. But no one would ever hear me do it and assume I’m stupid and uneducated. The reason? It’s a white, upper-class vocal tic.

Every piece of this is at play when someone lectures another person on grammar or spelling in an innocuous argument on Facebook. Pointing to someone’s improper grammar when your opinion has not been solicited is a power-move that serves to humiliate the other person for no reason other than to use your privilege as a crutch to seem superior. In order for you to have lectured another person on what they meant to say, you must have already known what they meant.

We’re all guilty of having done it at one point or another in our past. What’s important now is to recognizing the time and place for grammar policing. If the energy and time spent shaming others for how they communicate were spent instead on exploring the depths of meaning that make our language so beautiful, the Internet would be a much happier place.

To prove just how beautiful it can be for language to take on different layers of interpretation I leave you with this quote from the notoriously classist T. S. Eliot, which I am now appropriating for my own purposes: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language/ And next year’s words await another voice.”

Diana Koehm is a junior majoring in Human Rights and English with a Creative Writing concentration. She is on the creative non-fiction panel for the Long River Review.

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