Self-Appointed Grammar Police Are Sometimes called Language Nazis

Don’t let anyone use English grammar to put you down — especially you.

When someone critcized Winston Churchill for ending a sentence with a preposition, the noted expert on the English language replied, “This is snobbery up with which I cannot put.”

There is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition.  Often it’s the only way to form a sentence without twisting the words into a pretzel and sounding ridiculous.

Some people learned this meaningless rule from an English teacher, and it stuck in their memories.  Now they look around for opportunities to feel superior to people who break it.

Sentences that end with prepositions are as clear, or clearer, than sentences twisted out of shape,  just to end on a different word. Clear communication is the reason we have language.  We need rules of grammar and usage to assure clarity and understanding.

So why do we have so many rules that do not help us be clear? Answer:  They’re not really rules. According to Rochelle Lieber, Ph.D.,  a linguist interested in the grammar that describes the way people really speak, these prescriptive rules are, to language, what table manners are to nutrition.

Here’s a real rule that is required for clarity:

A panda walked into a bar carrying a rifle.  He munched a few nuts, shot a customer, and walked out the door.  The police caught him and asked why?   “I’m a panda,” he said.  He pulled out a dictionary, and showed the definition of Panda: “Bear-like mammal that eats, shoots, and leaves.“

An innocent person was shot because the editor of the dictionary changed the meaning of a sentence by misapplying the comma rule: when a sentence contains a list of three or more elements, put a comma after each one.  But this is not a list of three equal elements.  Eats is what the panda does; shoots and leaves are what the panda eats.  “Eats shoots and leaves” needs no commas when describing a panda’s diet.

Explain this prescriptive rule to a 13-year-old:

The expression between you and I is wrong. You need to say between you and me.  Between is a preposition, and the object of a preposition must be in the objective case.  Me is the objective case, and I is the nominative case, used only as the subject of a sentence or clause.

The same pronoun agreement rule says that  It’s me, It’s us,” or It’s him or her is wrong.  It should be  It is I, It is we, or  It is he or she. It is the subject of the sentence.  When the connecting verb is a form of to be,  the pronoun referring to the subject of the sentence must be in the nominative case.

It struck me is correct because the pronoun that says who or what was acted upon in the sentence, me, is the object of the verb, and must be the objective case.

It struck I, sounds incorrect and silly to our ears. Nobody says it.  We hear It’s me so often that it sounds OK.  In fact, It is I feels overly decorous, stilted, and a little silly, even though it is correct.  That’s because spoken English and informal writing do not follow the rules of formal composition.

Dr. Lieber would say that It’s me is OK in descriptive grammar, which describes the way people really speak.  It is I, to a linguist, is an example of prescriptive grammar.  It struck me is the way people really speak, and it also satisfies the pronoun agreement prescription.

Lieber, the hard-core descriptive linguist, would say it’s an irrelevant coincidence that it struck me is both an accurate reflection of the spoken language and the formal language’s rules. She thinks prescriptive grammar is a form of social oppression.  It can be used that way, and I’m against that.  But I’m not an ideology-driven advocate of anything, except clear communication

Imagine explaining the pronoun agreement rule  to a 13-year old.  Is it any wonder that many Americans grow up believing they are unable to write?  They’re afraid they’ll look stupid, and lose points off their grade, if they break a rule that is only  a rule in formal composition, not the language they speak or might use in an e-mail.  Teachers return their written work covered with red ink, and deduct points for each  mistake.  The kids might say something interesting if they weren’t afraid of breaking all these rules.

Children form millions of English sentences every day that everyone understands.  When they’re old enough, they can learn the rules of standard English, hopefully focusing on the ones needed for clarity.   These other confusing rules are imposed by grammar books and teachers, to honor the historic connection between English and its Latin roots.  In spoken English, or informal written English, they are not rules at all.

(Since 1980, a new way to teach writing, called “process writing,” is becoming more widespread.  It encourages children to focus on what they want to say.  When they get older, and want to make their writing clear to other people, they will learn grammar and spelling, the theory goes.)

Many primary school teachers also obsess on the distinction between “can” and “may.”  They even have little mind games designed to embarrass kids in front of the class, such as “You can, but you may not.” Could anyone say “can I go to the bathroom?” and be misunderstood?

Imagine being an African-American 5-year-old  from the “hood,” in the first day of kindergarten, with all the nerves and insecurities children bring to the first day of school.  Then imagine the teacher saying that the way you, and everyone you know, speaks English is wrong.  You’ll have to learn the right way, or you’ll never get anywhere.

This is not to say that “He be peeping at Paula,” and “He is flirting with Paula” are interchangeable or equally correct. It simply means you should know when each one is appropriate.

The notion that he and his family are stupid, illiterate, uneducated, and below other people because they can’t speak English “right” could turn a young child off permanently to school, learning, the teacher, white society, and maybe even good behavior and paying attention.  Children who speak with a regional accent or regional dialect get the same treatment, like they just fell off the turnip truck.

There are better, less judgmental ways to explain to children that they way they speak is fine in their families and neighborhoods, but if they want to succeed in the larger world, they must learn a different level of usage, while speaking their home language among people from their particular background.

We might even validate the energy and vivid expressions we have already learned from their dialect, that are now widely accepted in the larger society. Since language is constantly changing, it is reasonable to expect that more words from their dialect will become widely used and accepted, but that takes a very long time.

Dialects are becoming rare.  TV and increased geographic mobility have us speaking more and more alike, no matter where we’re from.   School teachers often pressure children to lose their native accents, sometimes by ridiculing the way they say things.  We’re losing a portion of our culture.  Loretta Lynn speaking is as musical as Loretta Lynn singing.   Same is true of the Clancy Brothers from Ireland, or anyone with a Welsh, Scottish, Jamaican, Bahamian, or British accent.

The old-time Brooklyn accent, where oil is “earl” and earl is “oil,” is almost gone, as is the native New Hampshire accent, overwhelmed by the influx of Flat Landers since 1970.  “Pahk ya Cah at Hahvid Yahd” is also on the way out, except as the punch line of jokes.

The early poetry of Robert Frost is written in the old New Hampshire accent, and now, almost no one can read it the way he heard it.  If you imitate New Hampshire dialect just a little bit wrong, it becomes Massachusetts or Maine.

The worst case of language snobbery I ever saw was a newspaper language column, where the writer pulled quotes off the Sunday morning talk shows , and ridiculed violations of the rules of formal composition.  He called the violations “catastrophes,” and “horror shows,” and “abominations.”

The nerve! People sound ridiculous when they observe the rules of formal composition in everyday, extemporaneous speech.  They sound like they write down every sentence before the say it, or like George Will, a professor’s kid from Illinois, who learned it trying to sound literate at Oxford University, then from his aristocratic mentor, William F. Buckley, Jr.





1 Comment for this entry

  • Ken!Brait1 says:

    A person I know who is head of a high school English department, got very angry at me when she read this. She asked if I wanted people to butcher the language and lower our standards, like Sarah Palin. Then she referred me to George Orwell for a lesson in the power of language
    I am not advocating poor grammar and usage. I’m simply saying that people who want to talk, and maybe write a letter, should not be put down for breaking rules that do not affect clear communication.

    People who go on television, and hold themselves up as models, like Sarah Palin, should be held accountable when they butcher the language. Over time, they are contributing to our growing illiteracy.

    I’m afraid, however, that the butchered spelling encouraged by Twitter and texting, where the authors have a limited number of characters, is part of the natural evolution of the language. What will be will be, and life will go on.

    Political Newspeak is a very serious problem today that threatens our ability to govern ourselves. Too many people believe far too many things that are not true.

    Conservative politicians, more than progressives, consciously use the labels they put on things to spread misinformation, and put their opponents on the defensive. Liberals would do the same if they could, but they are not as good at it.

    But that is not what this blog was about. I assure you it will be the subject of a future blog.

    Meanwhile, read a book called “Don’t Think About An Elephant,” by George Lakoff, a cultural linguist. It’s the best analysis I’ve seen of why conservatives have been winning the political debate since 1980, by framing the language everyone must use in the debate.


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