Stop correcting other people’s grammar

Feb 21, 2019 by

Neve Mahoney – I used to be the teen who would correct my friends’ grammar when they talked. When I walked into my first intro to editing class at uni, I was confident that I knew my grammar. I was then given a quiz of ten questions — I only got three correct.

Newspaper with corrections in red pen (Nic McPhee/Flickr)
What I thought were hard and fast rules were actually not that important, and then there were grammar rules I had never heard about in my life. I realised that when I was correcting people, the root of it was about what I thought was the correct way to speak rather than actual standard grammar rules.

Though our education system has made a shift to a more descriptivist style of teaching grammar, there is still a segment of the internet that seems obsessed with enforcing ‘correct’ grammar: the self-styled Grammar Police. Look at social media, website comment sections, even mugs. The Grammar Police are everywhere. This type of prescriptivist would have everyone use standard grammar and usage all the time, leaving little room for change or context. To them, the point isn’t whether the message is communicated effectively or not — it’s the way in which it’s delivered.

In communicating with others, grammar provides clarity, and Australian standard grammar is one way of accomplishing that. However, what often isn’t acknowledged is that knowing the standardised rules is a skill that not everyone has the same access to.

I only know the rules because of the various levels of privilege in my life. Australian English is my first language and the first language of my parents. I don’t have any learning, hearing or visual disabilities. I literally have a degree in writing and editing hanging in my bedroom. I’m interested in how words work because I was given every opportunity to be.

The relationship between grammar and privilege is important to point out because the people most hurt by sticking to a hardline prescriptivist viewpoint are minorities. In spite of increasing acceptance for singular ‘they’ and using gender-neutral pronouns, there is still staunch opposition on the basis of correct grammar usage, which is hard to read as anything but a not-so-subtle attack on non-binary and gender non-conforming people.

Young women are often mocked for overusing modifiers, quotative ‘like’ and creating slang. However, it’s recently being pointed out that mocking girls for how they talk isn’t just rude, it’s inherently misogynistic. It’s well established in the linguistic field that young women are at the forefront of language progression and have been for centuries. What then happens is that these changes become part of the cultural lexicon. Meaning that while most people end up using these new modes of speech, it’s mostly young women who are singled out for scorn.

“How we police language isn’t about nobly saving the standards of English, it’s about institutional power. Good grammar is a form of gatekeeping that can bar people from anything from job opportunities to public debate.”

Aboriginal English has a different syntax to standard Australian English, so its often misinterpreted as being ungrammatical, when in fact, according to Ian Malcolm, professor of applied linguistics, ‘the irony of the situation is that Aboriginal people, in most cases, are managing two dialects in the course of their everyday living and the people, very often, who criticise the way in which they use language are themselves mono-dialectal … Aboriginal people are managing a more complex linguistic situation than those that criticise them sometimes.’ And of course, the same applies to others who have learnt Australian English as a second language.

The crux of it is that how we police language in others often isn’t about nobly saving the standards of English, it’s about institutional power. Good grammar is not a neutral concept, but a form of gatekeeping that can bar people from anything from job opportunities to public debate. And since grammar and linguistic variation tends to be passed on through upbringing and proximity, those with entry points to people who hold institutional power end up receiving cultural capital, while those who can’t successfully codeswitch are left out in the cold.

Everyone’s grammar is a little different because our mix of experiences and influences are unique. Grammar is a fluid entity we create and change and improve upon; it can’t be contained in a box called ‘correct grammar’ and left to collect dust in a schoolroom.

The irony is that the more I have learned about grammar — how wild it is and how arbitrary it can be — the less I feel the need to correct other people’s grammar in my day to day life. When I put on my editor’s hat, it’s because someone has asked me to.

So before you make that snarky comment about how ‘that really isn’t a word’ or how someone didn’t know the difference between less and fewer, consider how important it really is. You wouldn’t give unsolicited advice about how someone dresses, so why correct how they speak?

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Main image: Nic McPhee/Flickr

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, grammar, language, discrimination

Source: Stop correcting other people’s grammar

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