Get Off My Lawn

You know how there’s always that one person that pops up in your Facebook comments or Twitter notifications that points out the comma you forgot or that you used the wrong form of ‘to’? Yeah, we’re talking about those people. They. Are. Jerks.

“Yeah, sometimes those people are jerks, it’s true,” said Nancy Vazquez.

Nancy used to an editor for several national publications, so she’s seen language used in a lot of different ways and contexts. Now, Nancy is an administrator here at the A&M University Writing Center and part of her job is to help run our social media.

“I did realize that any time we posted something on the Writing Center social media accounts if there was anything they saw as questionable in terms of grammar they would tend to sort of hit back pretty hard at that,” Nancy said. “It gave me the idea that there was a ‘get off my lawn’ approach to grammar which is this idea that there are people that feel the need to own language in a way and they see themselves as standard bearers,” she continued.

But really what I want to know is how correct these people are. Like, sure, they’re usually correct but it seems pedantic and mean to point this stuff out. We learn grammar in grade school, and most people know it pretty well. And, okay, this episode isn’t just about forgiving mistakes. Sometimes it can be pretty dang correct to be wrong, and as we’ll find out, it all has to do with context.

“I think one of the things you have to consider is what is grammar,” Nancy said, “and if you look at grammar a lot of books will define it as a set of rules governing the use of language. To which I would like to say: who is making these rules? You know we have no group in the English language at least that’s charged with making decisions about what is and isn’t acceptable. Even the few people that are involved in those discussions maybe people writing grammar handbooks, are looking at the ways we are using language. They’re not getting from some authority a definitely sense of, yes, this is what we must do. It’s simply a matter of what we have always done.”

A language like French, for example, has a governing body (the French Academy), a bunch of people who assert what is and isn’t correct to do. But in English we don’t have that. And besides, even if we did, we wouldn’t follow it. It’s all too common in France to hear violations of the French Academy. We speak and write how it’s culturally and historically relevant to do so. Language doesn’t get ‘worse’ or ‘better’ in any way over time, it just changes. But you’ll find a lot of people asserting that language is getting worse, that we’re all getting dumber and ain’t know how to do words good.

“There have even been studies that looked at the rate of errors and the kinds of errors that students make particularly in first year writing composition courses at universities and they really haven’t found any great increase in the rate of errors in these papers, what they see is that what we consider to be an error changes over time,” Nancy said.

She continued: “Language always evolves to suit the circumstances that it’s in. For example, right now, the word because is being used as a preposition, people are saying: “oh why did you do that?” “well because reasons.” So why are people saying “because reasons” or “because money” or “because sleep” or something like that, which is a construction we didn’t used to see before. Part of the reason they’re that is because of things like Twitter where there’s a limit on how many words or how many characters you can use so people need to write in a way that’s brief. Certainly there are some topics you can’t explore very well in a tweet but I also think that there are some things that are improved by brevity.”

As the platitude goes, it’s all relative, it here being language. Relative to your culture, to the medium, to the content. I talked with Mignon Fogarty,author of Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing who hosts a podcast called, you guessed it, Grammar Girl where she talks about grammar, how we use it, how it’s styled, and a bunch more. She has just under 300,000 followers on Twitter, that’s to say: a lot of people look to her for grammar advice.

“When you look back it’s really interesting because the telegraph had some of the problems that people complain about now with Twitter because it’s also a space constrained medium,” Mignon said, “and so, the spelling of alright, a-l-r-i-g-h-t, people were promoting that spelling which is still considered wrong in the most formal settings at least, people were promoting that spelling back in the days of the telegraph because it saved characters, just as you would argue now that certain things save characters on Twitter.”

And technology—not just modern tech either—changes language and usage. The steam engine, the printing press, paper, the xerox machine, all of that had at least some marginal effect on the way we communicate. But it’s not just material conditions that affect that, it’s the context, as well as the culture. Here’s Mignon again:

“I remember hearing linguist John McWhorter talk and saying if he walked into a bar or something and said “to whom the privilege of being here,” he was like “I’d get my butt kicked,” Mignon said, “there are certain ways of talking that are accepted by communities and it’s sort of part of our culture and our socialization that most people will modify their behavior, whether that’s dress or language, to fit in with whatever social group they’re hanging out with at the time.”

This is a point I can’t drive home hard enough. Different cultures speak and communicate differently. Certainly there’s a lot of room to be misunderstood and to come off as unprofessional or maybe even too professional in different settings. But part of that is on the listener or reader as well. While as communicators we should be aware of how our message will be received, we should also be aware of how we receive messages ourselves. It’s important to think about how our own prejudices can get in the way of hearing someone’s message.

“I have this sense that the language of people you don’t like seems more wrong to you than the language of people you do like,” Mignon said. “It seems like there’s a lot of underlying racism in complaints about language and things that are viewed as errors and mistakes. People will complain when African Americans say “axe” instead of “ask” but “axe” is actually the older form of the word. Like if you want to go back to what’s proper, and people often go way, way back, they always think that language was better in the old days which also isn’t true because no matter when you look people were complaining about kids today and how they talk but if you were trying to find some like logical or critical reason that “axe” is wrong you can’t find it, it’s just a dialect, it’s the way it’s often said in African American English, you know, that’s an example where it seems to bother people more than it should.”

That’s just one example. There are so many more ways that we can end up thinking that someone is wrong even when the aren’t. There aren’t only different dialects but ways that people speak within those dialects, different regionalisms that may just seem strange, even a lot of differences across gender. It’s way too much to get into here and we’ll definitely get into it on episodes in the future (actually, Mignon has a great episode of Grammar Girl on regionalisms called “Needs Washed” that we’ll link to in the notes).

But like we’ve said, context is important. For instance, the script for this podcast is not at all similar to how I’d write an essay for class. When I sit down to write this, I’m thinking of how my audience will be listening, who they are, what it’s appropriate to say and what tone will be best received. But, to get more practical, let’s say you’re applying for a job. Unless maybe that job is for a texting interpreter.

And that brings us right back around to what Nancy was saying. Different standards, mediums, and communication techniques exist for different purposes. It’s not a mistake that we say “OMG my BFF is totes cool” when texting—it’s appropriate for the context that we’re in. Just don’t say that if you’re in a job interview. And to flip that around, when you see someone using language in a certain way think, “is this appropriate for the medium and the content,” “do I still understand what is being communicated?” And even if those answers are no, is it really worth being a total jerk over it? In my mind, manners trump grammar.

Check out Grammar Girl’s post on regionalisms: