the grammar police

This post on Sugarbutch today touched on one of my pet peeves–the fetishization of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Other people’s pet peeves, as it were. Bear in mind that this is just my opinion, and I’m not directing this at Sinclair specifically (though it may undeniably seem so). It really is just a general rant about something that upsets me.

First, I’d like to make clear where I’m coming from. At the selective private college I attended, I worked for the school paper as a copy editor for two years, was a peer tutor for the English department, and spent nearly every evening of my last year as an undergraduate in the library working on my honor’s thesis (80 pages of critical theory which I hope no one will ever read). Professionally, I work in a library and have spent a great deal of time writing memos, grant applications, press releases, and other publications which require a strong ability to structure language. I’m studying for the GREs right now and so far there aren’t a lot of words in the verbal section which I haven’t seen before.

In short, I’m a bibliophile too. And I understand why people believe that a lack of attention to spelling, punctuation, and grammar reflects a ” lack of attention to detail” generally (as Sinclair puts it). And yes, it lends itself well to erotic power play–who hasn’t been chastised in school or elsewhere for sloppy writing? I too have a vintage Westcott ruler, and although I use it at work I’ve considered bringing it home. I have a few plaid skirts as well…

Schoolgirls are all well and good, but it’s the “elsewhere” that gets me. Because the role-play we like in bed often reflects a real-world situation in which there is a significant power balance, and in our real world lives, it isn’t always in a teacher/pupil context. I think that in most real-world situations where a person is being corrected for their inability to write in a specific manner, the power imbalance is often based on certain assumptions about class, race, and social status. These issues have nothing to do with the writer’s intellectual abilities, or even their ability to make themselves understood.

Without getting into an in-depth analysis of the failures of our public education system and the particulars of descriptive grammar theory, my basic feeling is: if you understand what a person is trying to say, and the only difference between what they’ve written and what you think they should have written is a capital letter here or there, all that your criticism does is make you seem elitist. In short, I think it’s a pile of classist bullshit, and if this issue hasn’t yet been featured on Stuff White People Like, I would happily nominate it.

9 Responses to the grammar police

  1. SublimeFemme says:

    Do you really think there is a lot of fetishizing of grammar in contemporary American culture?? I just don’t think most people care that much.

    That said, I see your point, which asks us to think about the fetish not just in terms of sexual power but social power–something that’s often unacknowledged by disciplinarians wielding rulers or red pens.

    I think you’re right that class privilege needs to be taken into consideration. I would say that class, race and gender all play significant roles in governing not just who has access to grammatical knowledge but also the constitution of grammar itself.

    All of this doesn’t mean that traditional grammatical rules/sentence construction is “a pile of classist bullshit.” I don’t think that anyone is saying that grammar is sacrosanct or makes us better people.

    In my view, putting words together clearly helps us to interrogate received ideas and social norms and even gain access to new modes of pleasure and enjoyment.

  2. dylan says:

    I’m studying for the LSATs right now and can we just take a moment outside of this entry to collectively moan about how much they suck?

    Ok, with that aside, this entry has really given me something to chew on. I often find that the way something is written or said it what captivates me rather than WHAT is being said. I should think about why that might be and how academia has shaped that bias.

  3. linaria says:

    sublimefemme: thanks for your well-thought comment. I certainly agree that reading brings pleasure, and also agree that it “helps us to interrogate received ideas and social norms.” I don’t think we disagree there.

    perhaps it’s that I work in academia, and your experiences may be different, but I do actually think many people believe that the way you present yourself linguistically is evidence of your general worth as a person. not in a conscious way–I mean a certain low-key condescension in the phrase “I am well, thank you” when given in response to “I’m good, how are you?”

  4. linaria says:

    dylan: it’s been a looooong time since I’ve taken any kind of standardized test and I have to say it’s kicking my ass. good gods. I realized this week that half my problem right now is that I’ve forgotten how to do long division on paper…

    but the texture of language, the arrangement of words, is a entire subject entirely aside from the meaning–whole schools of theory have been based on this, and when you get down to it, it’s how most writers make a living.

    Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

  5. this is, somewhat ridiculously, a major point of uncertainty for me. first, i completely agree with linaria here – i think our society has a strong bent towards education = worth, which is, as you so eloquently put it “a pile of classist bullshit.” i suppose what i’m saying is that while very few people are saying it, lots of people seem to imply that proper grammar makes us better people.

    that said, though, i do have something of a literature fetish. there are (somewhat like what dylan said) some authors who write so well that it truly doesn’t matter to me what it is they’re writing about (i read sense and sensibility recently, and i’m still on a little linguistic high). and people with exceptional grammar skills totally awe me. while we’re on the subject of the grammar police – firefox doesn’t think classist is a word. i was okay with that until i checked the possible corrections, which include “cl assist.” count me amused.

  6. SublimeFemme says:

    linaria: Well, yes, people in academia are often snobs about such things. It’s a part of what Bourdieu calls cultural capital, which is (as I’m sure you know) particularly seductive for academics. I think this is understandable–to some degree, anyway–because our labor is typically undervalued compared to other professionals. So I agree with you. I would just point out that academia is a very small, very exceptional, and often very strange cultural constellation in contemporary America.

    And I love Lolita. Great first sentence.

    To respond to ladybrettashley, I see your point, but I think we’re talking about much more than grammar here, though. It’s worth noting that the traditional model of liberal education (now fading in today’s increasingly corporate university) is grounded in the notion that studying the humanities, etc makes us better people. We can see this as ideological but still read, love, teach, & value literature.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  7. linaria says:

    sublimefemme: the example I gave above actually happened in the grocery store, between a clerk and a customer, but you’re quite right about the “cultural constellation” of academia–although even within this particular subculture there are variations in public vs. private models and considering the increasing numbers of international students, etc…

    In any case, I also appreciate the discussion, and it’s good to be able to agree to somewhat-disagree. Thanks for visiting.

  8. Debs says:

    It may sound snobbish- but what annoys me more than anything is people saying they are speaking English when they are speaking American. There is a clear distinct difference. I also get annoyed at “Americanisms” creeping into everyday language over here in little old England.

    I do think language and the construction of it matters, both written and spoken. It’s how we convey our thoughts and feelings.

  9. linaria says:

    Debs: I see what you mean…but there are many, many forms of English spoken all over the world. Not just in the US and England, but also in South America, Africa, the Caribbean, Asia–and while they have slight differences in accent and vocabulary, in their basic construction they are all the same language.

    Take a group of native English speakers: one from England, one from the US, and another from Haiti. They might have some difficulty understanding each other–but it’s not as if one of them is speaking Russian, another French, and the third Swahili. So I don’t think it’s inappropriate to say that we both speak English.

    You may feel threatened by hearing people speak “Americanisms,” but remember that the spread of languages is not a new process–it’s the result of many centuries of cultural integration.

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