This is a topic I have been become increasingly sensitive about and since a few people who I am fond of had status messages on the subject of grammar, I galvanised myself into doing a post I have been longing to do for a while.
At the outset let me say this. I started out as one of those who sniffed at people who had less than what I judged to be acceptable English. And make no mistake – it is a judgement and like any judgement, it is a subjective one.
Most of the time a certain kind of English is a clue to a certain kind of social background and I felt that I could never gel with people who didn’t speak my kind of English. It is true that I find that I get along more easily with people who speak the same kind (and I refuse to use the word ‘standard’ here) of English that I do but I now recognise that this is similar to how people from the same country of origin or religion or school or part of town tend to flock together. It is about ease of communication and shared background rather than a question of relative superiority.
Living and working for an extended period of time with people who speak English as a second language has helped me look for meaning and value in places other than fluency in English. I will always admire those that have a good turn of phrase, but I have now begun to value content as much as presentation. Let’s just say my comprehension skills have improved.
Now I find myself increasingly intolerant of the grammar nazis and their rudeness because rudeness tinged with arrogance it is. This blog is dedicated to shaming the shamers and I find myself on a similar mission these days. I find myself biting my tongue a whole lot, not when I spot unnecessary apostrophes but when I see people making dramatic statements on other people’s language usage.
The irony is that the correctors are not error-proof themselves. The shining example of this is Lynne Truss who wrote an entire book about apostrophes and the like, and was then found to have made some errors in that book herself. If Truss, who I assume had the benefit of similar grammar stalwarts editing her work, could slip up, I’m sure you and I shoring up our self esteem by policing other people’s ps and qs have slipped up many many more times.
There are multiple reasons why people make language errors. A basic reason is that they are not native English speakers. Thus, I am not just bored, I am outright annoyed with people who get into a froth over errors on the signage of small shops. Often the shop owners are not people who have had the benefit of the best education or they used a cheap sign maker who made an error and they decided to let it go. This is the new version of giggling over other people’s pronunciation and it’s not really funny.
In fact, I find it ironic when Indians do this because we have been victims of language snobbery ourselves. Even now, speaking English with an Indian accent is seen as somehow lesser than other Westernised accents. By being snotty about written language, all we are trying to do is separate ourselves from the masses by degrees.
Another reason for errors is carelessness. A piece of written English peppered with errors could indicate a careless attitude to everything and therefore be a danger to employers. It could also be that people who are careless in some areas are extremely detail-oriented in other areas that they are passionate about. If your core business deals with writing, it is understandable to want to hire people who are not careless with language but otherwise, wouldn’t you be losing out on talent in your core area by judging people on something that is not?
People are also capable of compartmentalising. Some people are entirely different at work and outside work. My husband was once asked by his boss whether he was schizophrenic because his outside work personality is so different from his work one. There may be fashion models who choose to spend their free time slouching about in pajamas because they just want to let go when they are not working. So also with language and people who deal with language for a living (aka moi).
Sometimes people make mistakes when they are stressed out or in a hurry. One may slip up on things like “its” and “it’s” or certain phrases (I was recently called out on “tongue in cheek”) even when one knows better.
Sometimes people genuinely don’t know better. So what? If you are hiring them to edit other people’s English, then you have a problem. Otherwise swallow your judgement and move on.
There are two issues here:
1. Should you be judging? For me, the clear answer is no. As I said, there are multiple reasons why people slip up with language and you can make your own decisions on whether you want to hang out with people based on their persistent language transgressions but do so quietly. You may be prejudiced against people who use language a certain way, but recognise it for what it is – a prejudice and not a divine calling and hide it accordingly because prejudice is uglier than wrong subject-verb agreement.
2. Should you be correcting people for their mistakes? If you have been hired to do so, then by all means, proceed. I would still say proceed gently. Most people, to varying degrees, are defensive when being corrected…about anything. Language carries with it nuances of class, race, education etc. and so correcting someone’s language needs to be done sensitively.
Let’s not forget that many of us have a job because other people are not as proficient or careful as we are in wielding language. This does not mean that we are perfect or never make a mistake. We all have our quirks when using language. There may be pet errors that each of us makes. You may not be aware of what these errors are but if you think you never make any – and not just careless ones – you are living in a convenient little bubble and might be very embarrassed one day because if you are not gentle with other people, the odds are they are not going to be gentle with you.
If someone’s language in a social situation is grating on your nerves, the question to ask would be, why do I need to correct them?
I may think pairing brown shoes with a black bag is a hideous sin but mostly, I won’t go up to people and berate them on what I think is their terrible fashion sense. If I spot a huge stain on a friend’s shirt, I might casually point it out but I always approach with caution because you know, some people don’t really care about stains, or maybe that wasn’t a stain at all but a new trend. Ask yourself, “Why do I need to point this out?”
Some people might think that they are doing other people a favour by calling them on their mistakes so that yet other people don’t judge them. But a whole lot of us don’t give two hoots what these other judgy people think because we are sick and tired of judgy people. And grammar judgy people are no better than other kinds of judgy people. Judging people on their grammar is no less superficial than judging people on their clothes, even though the former seems to be an intellectual pursuit.
People might also see themselves as defenders of the right way to use a language. If I don’t correct this, everyone may start speaking like this and the sky will fall on all our heads. But actually, everyone did start speaking like we do (our usage would probably have appalled the previous gatekeepers of good grammar) and life went on.
Let’s recognise that whether errors are errors or not is very debatable. Many of the things we are convinced are heretical sins turn out to be just ways of doing things in another part of the world. Like eating with your hands.
Language usage changes and while I would dearly love “couldn’t care less” to remain as such, it looks like it’s going to go the way of “could care less” and I need to just get with the programme and care less. There was probably similar angst over “I’m” and “I am” at one point of time.
If one is really concerned about the decline of the English language, one might consider adopting the Chinese way. Chinese people almost never outright correct people in social settings. They just keep pointedly keep doing things their way, hoping you will get the point. Either you will one day notice that everyone pours tea for everyone else before themselves and you adapt or you keep being blissfully ignorant, but because everyone else continues pouring tea in the socially acceptable way, tea drinking continues with only minor aberrations. Or if enough people think “hey let’s just pour our own tea”, then slowly the custom itself changes, sometimes to the horror of the traditionalists.
I am not arguing that there should be no rules and grammar should be a free for all. Just that this should not be a quazi-moral discussion which is what it has come to be. Rules are agreed upon by consensus and they evolve. Often, when I edit stuff in my workplace, I am modernising and moving the traditionalists along more than anything. We are sticking to rules as much as going with the flow to present a certain image of fluency. What we should not be doing is wielding a stick.
Editors are like stylists more than soldiers. Our existence does not mean that lesser mortals do not know how to wear clothes. It is not occasion to rage at someone who has this annoying habit of wearing gold AND silver jewellery (which used to be a cardinal sin but is not anymore) because you know, wrongful pairing of accessories never killed anyone and neither did a misplaced apostrophe.
I kept thinking – is correcting another person’s grammar like letting someone know they have food stuck in their teeth? In some ways, yes. I appreciate knowing I am walking around with a bit of spinach there that is going to distract everybody who has a conversation with me thereafter. What I wouldn’t appreciate is someone saying “hey, you have food in your teeth *smirk* *smirk*”, the implication being that you are a bit of a buffoon for having food stuck in your teeth and they, masters of putting food in their mouths without errant greens besmirching their pearly whites, would never let such a thing happen to them. Hell, they are so classy greens just dissolve seamlessly. I see a lot of *smirk* *smirk* going on in discussions on language and it indicates immaturity at best, arrogance at worst.
Gently discussing what you perceive to be a grammatical error may be acceptable among close friends. Congratulating yourself on your superior language skills – which at some level is what I see at the heart of all this angst over grammar – is just really sad.