The English Language and Snobbery

Yesterday, I did a presentation on noun modifiers in Laini Taylor’s YA Fantasy novel “Daughter of Smoke and Bone”. That afternoon, I taught ESL speakers about conditional sentences (“If we go to the store, we will be late to the party.”) I’m studying for my Teaching English as a Foreign Language Certificate, so I’ve been taking Linguistics classes to learn about English, how to teach grammar, second language acquisition, things like that. I’m also an editor for Entranced Publishing. I love writing and reading. I just LOVE language. Even though I’m only fluent in English, I love learning about other languages and I have a list of a bunch I want to learn.

So, in light of this Linguistics knowledge I’ve been acquiring, I’ve been noticing something. A lot of people can be snobs when it comes to the English language. And, really, I’ve got to say something about it.

I’m reading a book called The Power of Babel by John McWhorter. It’s about the evolution of language — how we got the thousands of languages today from one ancestor language that existed six or seven thousand years ago. He emphasizes that language is constantly evolving — it’s inevitable! What we see as language degradation is a completely natural process for language. When Latin was evolving into French, people had the same opinions that we do today about words like “lol”.

The other day, in my writing group, we started talking about language evolution, and someone said that pretty soon we wouldn’t even have words anymore, just letters like “u r”. I love my writers group, but I’m sorry to say that’s not the case.

Maybe we are more reluctant to language change because it is set in stone through books, media, the Internet — we can see the language of two decades ago in newspapers, where as that wasn’t possible in 1450. We have Hollywood movies where we can see the way people spoke in the 1960s. McWhorter said that the evolution of English has slowed in the last century due to new developments in technology that give it more permanence. But we still can never avoid language evolution completely.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a person who loves the Oxford comma, and as an editor, I have to correct my writers’ mistakes. I have to use the Chicago Manual of Style and say things like, “This is a comma splice.” But I recognize that this is a prescriptive grammar. Basically, that means we as a society have decided that this is the correct way to say it, that these are The Rules. They are totally arbitrary rules invented by us. The descriptive grammar is what we see on social media, in natural conversation — it’s the grammar that we invent through natural use of the language. It’s the actual use as opposed to the “correct” usage.

Nobody talks like that! It may be educated, but you sound very silly.

I will enforce the CMOS for published books (in my own and for authors I edit for), but I will not judge someone for using a double negative. There are certain social norms, and when we abbreviate words or stop using punctuation on Facebook, people may interpret that to mean you’re uneducated, you don’t care about language, etc.

But more often than not, instead of recognizing that there is a time and place for proper grammar, these prescriptivists use grammar rules to be condescending and elitist. They’re used to put others down so we can feel good about ourselves. We become oppressors touting rules that make no sense — why can’t we end a sentence with a preposition? Tell me, please! — about a language we don’t even truly understand. For example, do you know why or how double negatives became taboo in English? Did you know that many other languages accept double negatives, even require them?

So, when I see stuff like this, it just kills me:

You’re judging people on whether they have the exact same language rules and education you do? Oh, okay. Great to know you’re so open-minded.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen comments on Facebook akin to, “A person with such a horrible grasp on grammar/spelling doesn’t deserve…” Fill in the blanks: to live, to have a relationship, to have children.

Really? REALLY? We are going to base whether a person has the right to live on their ability to write or speak the way you do? Not whether they’re good people, whether they contribute to society, whether they love people, whether they have invaluable knowledge? Or, you know, based on the fact that they’re a human being, not an opportunity for you to shove your elitist rules down everyone’s throats.

As you can probably tell, this excites me quite a bit! Please don’t interpret this to mean I’m someone who support confusion of “you’re/your” or “their/there/they’re.” I love it when people have correct grammar. I plan to teach grammar to ESL speakers for a living! I was so excited to teach those conditional sentences, you have no idea. But I’m not going to look down on a person because they forgot a period or misused a comma.

We shouldn’t use our language — and the privilege we’ve had to be educated — to lord over people. Also, when words and grammar rules are changing or evolving, and it frustrates us, just remember that English is constantly evolving. You may think the English language is going down in flames, but get used to it. It’s what being a language is all about.

Emily Ann Ward is the author of Finding Fiona, Le Garde series, and The Protectors series. One of her first stories featured a young girl whose doll came to life. The rest is history. When it comes to fiction, she writes mainly young adult, contemporary, and fantasy. She also writes nonfiction, ranging from stories of her travels to thoughts on the Bible. Aside from writing, she loves traveling and she’s a content editor with Entranced Publishing. Currently, she lives in Salem, Oregon with her husband Chris and their cats. Visit her website at http://emilyannward.com

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5 comments on “The English Language and Snobbery

  1. Great post! I guess it’s inevitable that people who think they know something that others don’t will be tempted to act snobbish. But it’s essential for every writer, editor and reader to remember that language changes over time and over space, too. Why else does Word have so many different versions for its English spelling dictionary?

    There is a fine line to walk, though, between using current language and straying so far from the rules that you are hindering your own ability to get a message across . It comes back to the most important rule of writing in any language: know your audience.

  2. Love the post, and agree with all said here. The changing spelling and grammar that texting has brought on brings to mind the rule-lessness of the days before the printing press, when people spelled words and punctuated sentences in whatever way they thought best. As a former professional copyeditor, I can read style manuals for pleasure, but I also recognize that everyone’s got to be flexible with the rules–especially in casual speech and writing.

    Regarding the cartoon showing the wife threatening the husband, I would just point out that a truly snobbish “educated” husband would correct the whole line: “Tell me with whom you are cheating on me!” 😉

  3. Pingback: A Battle Between Rules and Reality | Language By Amanda

  4. A lot of the rules that cause so much trouble–split infinitives, prepositions ending sentences, double negatives, “Sarah and me went to the store”–were essentially invented by 18c grammarians who believed that English should be more like Latin, and that language in general should be logical–neither of which is true. The reason people make these mistakes so often is that they are part of the intuitive logic of the language. They sound right unless it’s been drummed into you that they are wrong. Now these rules are used as a badge of the educated, and those who break them can be dismissed and excluded from privileges. Excellent post.

  5. Great post. It really opened my eyes. I would have been that person to post the ecard picture. I would have looked down on someone for trivial grammatical errors on Facebook. When in reality the only difference between that and looking down on someone because of race is that it is socially acceptable. In either case I would be passing judgment on someone without knowing anything about them.

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