Check You’re Self

Well color me embarrassed.

I have, in the past, certainly fallen into the category of “grammar purist.” I didn’t super-extensively study dangling participles and the Latinate precepts of English grammar, but I know how to use apostrophes and colons and semi-colons in the ways agreed upon by academics and most potential employers, and I value that knowledge. Being able to write by using language that is–

(I have to stop here and say how difficult it is for me to construct this paragraph without using the words “correct” or “appropriate” or “right,” which is the entire point of this entry. That’s how insidious the point of view that standardized middle- and upper-class (white) English is “real English” or “proper English.” Seriously, try it. It’s hard.)

Ahem. Being able to write by using the language expected of me by upper-level institutions and businesses makes my life much easier and has opened the doors to many opportunities. I have certainly been someone to frown upon or even make fun of grammatical errors, to groan and wince at mistakes of punctuation, and to correct other people.  I have not thought nearly enough about how my ability to use language in this way is a privilege and not a sign of my innate intelligence, work ethic, or worth.

Before I go on, please read this article:

Did you? Cool. Okay. Was your mind even the tiniest bit blown?

Mine too.

Which is ridiculous! I come from what is practically the quintessential liberal arts background. I know about Foucault and about the political use and origin of language and I’ve done thought experiments about language as signifier or as complicit in the creation of oh just shut up already, Stratford.

The point is, I try to be sensitive to privilege and prejudice and this is a huge example of both those things that I really haven’t thought about. It is a way of potentially hurting other people in which I have been complicit.

To be fair, it’s not like I correct strangers or troll the Internet looking to tear people down for an accidental swap of “its” for “it’s.” When I give guff, it tends to be to people whom I know for a fact were educated to my level and who to my knowledge do not suffer from learning disabilities. But there are still a lot of assumptions present in that case, and I think I need to chill about it.

Let’s give the grammar that I use its due. A lot of these rules, while they may seem arbitrary, are intended to make writing as clear as possible. A semicolon denotes a different length of pause than a comma or a period. I can’t tell you how anal-retentive I am about our punctuation when my writing team drafts a song or a scene. It’s not that leaving off the period at the end of a line of dialogue makes it impossible to understand–rather, it’s that when you do so not to make a point about how the line operates (here, I would assume that means that the thought is unfinished in some way or cut off, though not as aggressively as with a dash) but out of laziness, I think that different information is conveyed to the people you are trying to communicate with, i.e. the readers.

That said, I think it is entirely valid to write an entire play without punctuation or capitalization and with spellings that are not considered standard by strict Prescriptivists. I think, again, that you can convey a lot of information about the play, the characters, their way of speaking and of thinking, and even our society by writing a play like this. When you do it on purpose. Or if you do it because that’s the way you know how to write, and you have something you want to write.

The truth is, just like the personal is political, writing is political. We often don’t think consciously about this, but we know that it’s true. I’ll write in a different manner when I’m posting on my best friend’s Facebook wall (an example from my wall from today: I responded with an all-caps “I NO RITE” to a post about “Gagnam Style”) than I will in an email to a colleague or even in this blog. We understand that the ways in which we write and speak have an impact on how other people perceive us and that they convey information about us to others. We just don’t always think about how lucky we are to have a choice as to the ways in which we write and speak.

So. A couple of my privileges thrown out in the open here:

-I’ve always had a facility with language. Learning languages, speaking, and writing come very easily to me. This is at least in part biological. I am not dyslexic, I have always been excellent at taking tests, and my parents and grandparents all also demonstrate a facility with language.

-I grew up in a an articulate, literate household. My parents are both college graduates from top universities (Stanford and Duke). My mother went to law school at BU. They had the time and money to spend time with me as a child, reading me stories, talking to me, and teaching me about language.

-I have had access to excellent public education and then had the finances/opportunities necessary to attend a top liberal arts institution for higher education.

-I grew up with easy access to all kinds of books and was encouraged to read as much as I wanted.

-I have been surrounded, for 25 years, by people who speak and write in the vernacular of English that Prescriptivists deem “proper.”

-I have never had a level of difficulty going on in my life outside of education that kept me from learning and studying and internalizing the precepts of this type of English in school or elsewhere. I have never had to worry more about whether or not I’m going to eat than if I can finish my homework. I have never been more concerned with bodily safety than with education.

I’m sorry if I’ve come off as a snob to any of you. The reason I care about language is because I really, deeply care about communication, not because I ever want to reinforce any kind of marginalization. In fact, I care about communication because I want to break down marginalization and remind people that we are all human beings and that we all deserve the same chances and benefits and opportunities, regardless of accidents of birth. Next time I see a blog comment or a Reddit post that uses grammar that I would not necessarily use, I’ll be sure to think about this article, and muzzle my inner Grammar Policewoman before I allow her to blind me to the content of the post.

I hope you’ll do the same.


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