Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Beware the Big Bad...Grammar?

I've been encountering this a lot lately: people find out that I'm an English person, and suddenly they're commenting that they need to watch how they talk or act embarrassed about their writing. Things of that nature. I didn't used to get that quite as much, but ever since I started my MA program (meaning that my answer to "What do you do?" has changed), I've been getting a lot more of it. But why?

I always smile a little and hurry to reassure the worried party that I am in fact NOT judging their writing or their speaking. (Well, part of my is analyzing their writing and speech, but I tuck that bit away). But here's the deal--why would I critique the way someone speaks? That's just plain rude. I'd hate for someone to start criticizing my eyebrows. And that's what language is--it's a part of us, part of who we are, and part of our appearance. I don't correct grammar (for the most part--usually it's people who I know would want to say things properly, or I'm dating/related to them) because that would be like telling someone their eyebrows are weird.

Everyone speaks proper English--just not SAE (Standard American English), which is the dialect that They selected as the paragon of spoken English. Here's the deal--almost no one speaks SAE. If they say they do, they lie. I say "y'all" a lot, as well as some non-standard phrases, but they are still correct. The listener understands what I am saying.

Anyway, I might occasionally mock bad writing, but usually it is in the context of that person being a professional writer--and doing it horribly. I would never dare to tell someone that is writing for enjoyment or fun that they are punctuating improperly or that they really should capitalize. I can grumble about it to myself, but I would never tear another human being down in such a way. How we speak and write is an intrinsic part of our selves--and probably why people get so nervous when they hear that I am an English MA student. (I wonder: do they suddenly see me as taller? As brandishing a red pen? Or thumping a yardstick?)

It's a weird balance to strike. Just as I have to separate my critical self from my sensibilities that might be outraged by a work of art (Kant!), I have to separate out the part of myself that wants to "fix" writing and grammar and realize that it's better to just let people be free to express themselves. I would never want to be the cause of a loss of self-expression and freedom.


Justin Ray said...

So...is "impacted" just a pet peeve? ;)

the secret knitter said...

Hmm, something in this wonderful post is deserving of a quote. ;)

Saying that I'm a film critic brings the same thing out in people. People's tastes are what they are, and I don't begrudge them that...most of the time (and then not to their faces). There's no need to be defensive.

Emily said...

The cheerful letter is sitting on my desk waiting for a reply. I'm done with exams, so I'll be sure to send you back something soon!