“Why can’t the English learn to speak?”
– Henry Higgins, from My Fair Lady
I’ve been scaring all my friends lately by ranting on about grammar and how much I hate it. They come to me with concerned looks and say, “But doesn’t grammar help you understand what other people are saying?” And I tell them, “Well, that’s where it should stop. Once you understand a person, it doesn’t matter how they said it.”
Why do I sound this extreme? (And, admittedly, I am not this extreme at heart, because the misuse of ‘your/you’re’ does annoy me.) I puzzled over this fact for a while. I’m the sort of person who loves learning new words, and easily can remember the official rules for using ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’ – and even the more obscure facts such as ‘peruse’ originally meant to read carefully, not skim. So why would I hate language rules?
Because I hate how knowledge of English language rules can be used to bully people.
“Are You a Language Bully?” asks Matthew J.X. Malady at Slate, underlining my point that people often use language rules to shame each other, show off over each other, and to feel superior to each other.
He restricts this bullying to obscure language rules, but I know how even rules ‘everyone should know’ can be used as weapons. How someone can pointedly and clearly fire a criticism at someone else, and be met with, “I don’t think you know what ‘literally’ actually means…”
Maybe it’s because I volunteer to teach ESL, or because I live in a country where I meet immigrants daily, or because my mother and grandparents and so many members of my own community were immigrants themselves. Maybe it’s because I’ve travelled and know what it’s like not to know ‘the rules.’ I see how the inability to communicate holds people back, and once they gain that ability to communicate, the fear of others still keeps them quiet.
Language should be democratic. If we have freedom of speech, we should also have freedom of speaking without being held back by nerves or fear of others. If people can’t understand us – well then, that’s our problem, and maybe we should go back and rephrase things. But if we made a point, why dismiss it because of how it’s phrased?
Knowing how to use English ‘properly’ tells other people you’re well educated, but, more sinisterly, it also indicates wealth and social class. Certain accents and words (like “ain’t”) are looked down on and shunned, and children are repeatedly taught not to use them, even though almost every English speaker in the world can understand the word “ain’t.” (Sorry, I always loved that word). Why words and sentences become “proper” English, while other words become “slang” – well, it often depends on who uses them. It also depends on time and how words change over time, but I hate, hate, hate how perfectly clear language can be looked down on. How the underlying message to enforcing language rules can be: “Only the elite should be listened to.”
Whoa, so I’m ranting again. Let’s narrow this down to how this should play out in the real world – since I don’t actually believe we should throw out all the English language rules out tomorrow. Keep the one that are useful, thank you.
I think good writers are able to recognize a powerful expression, and the truth that shines through the words, no matter how it’s phrased – like Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn. Use whatever combination of words you need to get the message across. Linguists can go on doing wonderful studies of how people actually use language, and where ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ language come from. And English teachers (by this I mean the poor souls who have to teach grammar and spelling and the difference between a ‘subject’ and a ‘predicate’) can limit themselves to teaching our kids, and being quiet when nobody follows the rules.
And we can all help each other speak clearly and understandably, while leaving behind the judgemental worries about the disintegration of the English language.