Eat, Shoot Snobs, and Leave. Insisting on ‘correct’ grammar is Classist, Racist, Ableist Bullshit.Posted: August 22, 2013
My father grew up dyslexic in a Jesuit run Boarding school somewhere North of Dundee in the mid-sixties. The resulting insinuations that he was stupid and incompetent by his peers and teachers meant that my sister and I were tested very early for the condition and were given all the support possible for a lower middle class family and a state run school system. I grew up with both parents and teachers having a working understanding of how dyslexic people communicate; for example, I was able to skip morning assemblies to practice reading and writing which helped keep me out of a remedial class whilst still being able to keep up with the other kids in my class.
Despite this support, my teenage years were littered with a casually dismissive attitude surrounding Dyslexia, ranging from a point blank refusal to accept that my inability to use apostrophes and commas correctly was anything other than laziness to academics and hack journalists discrediting the whole idea of extra help as a middle class fad promoted by sharp elbowed parents wanting a leg up for their idiot offspring. The promotion of dyslexia as a social construct lead to many of my peers casually telling me that they were a little dyslexic because sometimes they couldn’t remember how to spell “banana” and had messy handwriting. This general idea that everyone’s a little dyslexic so it’s no big deal meant that I spent my first two years of University purposefully not seeking recognition for my condition as to my mind, a degree achieved on different merits to everyone was innately cheaper. This idiotic attitude resulted in me spending an evening sitting in my dormitory crying tears of frustration and shame over an essay I had worked for months scraping a passing grade because, whilst my professor knew what I was saying and appreciated the argument, he couldn’t allow a spelling and grammar mistake riddled essay get more than 40%.
I tell this story because sometimes, for some people spelling is just hard and grammar nigh on impossible. (The only grammatical term I can certainly define is “pronoun,” and that’s only because I have queer friends). The reasons someone might have difficulty making themselves understood are diverse: maybe they’ve never been taught the various idiosyncratic rules of one of the most complex languages on Earth, or, possibly having learned said rules they have forgotten them due to disuse. Alternatively, it could be possible that their brain just isn’t structured to gauge when “Whom” is appropriate, or possibly this whole standardized spelling thing being somewhat new and difficult, they mistakenly thought that context and setting would give you ample clues as to what they were trying to say. Either way, if you are someone who comes to ‘proper’ language use easily: Quit being a dick about it.
I understand, of course, in practical terms for things like academic essays, news articles, the kind of thing that needs to be understood by a broad range of people without much effort a common written language is necessary. I try to offset this necessity with the numerous functions Microsoft word (and other office software available) provide me in making myself understood. This common set of words and grammatical rules is still just a means to an end; not a straight jacket to communication or – as far too many people seem to think – a secret code to establish who is intelligent and who isn’t. In a lot of cases this is the basis for tiresome articles by members of the socioeconomic elite bemoaning the debasement of English language and peoples because their particular interpretation of the common language (again, something that is primarily a means of communication with as many people as possible) is no longer used by the majority of people. It’s sort of reminiscent of the conservative reaction to the 2012 Presidential Election; in both cases, the unpopularity of either the Republican party or outmoded linguistics doesn’t mean there is anything wrong or redundant with them; rather those who don’t abide by them are failing morally and intellectually.
This attitude leads to a lot of bizarre and misplaced outrage; the most prominent one in my mind is the outcry over the BBC TV series, “Rastamouse,” the story of a Rastafarian mouse and his friends/fellow band members who solve crimes on a Caribbean island populated exclusively by mice speaking Jamaican Patois. Rastamouse is a really positive T.V. show as not only is it taking its main characters from a minority that has been continually attacked and marginalized in recent British history and basing a whole program around them, it’s also presenting these characters as emphasizing respect, friendship and peaceful resolution of disputes. These positive aspects were, however, brushed aside by the strange assumption that the use of Patois made the show offensive. To be fair, some people seemed to worry about white children picking up the language out of context and repeating them indiscriminately like a post on Mumsnet which mostly worried “about her [child] saying the words like ‘Rasta’ and going up to a child and saying [these] things … my child is white and I feel if she was to say this to another child who was not white that it would be seen as her insulting the other child.” I’m all for having a discussion on appropriation of other cultures and the disrespect therein, but the majority of the complaints surrounding Rastamouse were and are based on the assumption that exposing children to Patios and legitimizing the people who speak it, is by definition demeaning Jamaican people. Jamaican people who, of course, realize that the way white middle class people speak is the only correct way to use English, and are therefore deeply ashamed of any slang apart from it whilst simultaneously damaging everyone else who might be tricked into thinking Patios – and thus other deviations from the Queen’s English – is acceptable.
The fact of the matter is that slang, variations of spelling, and straight up inventing new words is inevitable and, thus, should be acceptable. This is particularly true of English which is spoken by hundreds of millions of people, the vast majority of whom live outside England; the rules and regulations that guide the language are only so good as their ability to smooth communication between parties. The idea that there is a central, correct version of English is an unpleasant hangover from the era when certain classes of people were fundamentally incorrect for being the wrong religion, too working class, or just not white enough. A situation Middle Class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were put on this earth to rectify by enforcing the apparent fact that ‘i’ must only follow ‘e’ after ‘c’.
I understand the need for a broad standard in how we express ourselves – that’s the point of language after all – but as a dyslexic child I was taught by a very nice creative writing teacher that the point of it all was to make yourself understood. There is a rule in English that if you’ve made yourself understood, then what you said is correct. This means that if someone ‘correctly’ corrects your spelling or grammar, they are incorrect. This is a rule I always remember when someone decides that because of a misplaced comma, or an errant ‘H’ somewhere in a word, a sentence is gibberish and devoid of context or meaning. If this is how you view the world then you do not communicate in a language, you communicate via code, a strange code that allegedly makes you superior because some people in the past used to talk in the same manner. I don’t judge anyone for adhering to all the rules prescribed Oxford and Webster; I just don’t particularly respect anyone for doing so and don’t think I need to adhere either. This attitude is born from the fact that I simply can’t keep up with the application of these rules in all circumstances and I know that when someone makes a grammatical or spelling error, they’re not doing it as an affront to anyone’s sensibilities or displaying a willful defiance. For a lot of people (myself included) the fact that grammar and spelling presents a challenge is a source of deep seated shame and fear and try as you might, you will not snap people out of it by continually picking at their apparent weakness. So make the effort to understand other people and quit being a classist, racist, ableist dick.
This Post was made readable by loving editing by my partner Kayla.