Literacy privilege, or, why grammar nazis are dicks

Chandra, a "recovering grammar snob" who works as an English teacher, has a smashing trio of essays on Literacy Privilege -- the invisible privilege that accrues to people who have the facility to write well and clearly, and who have absorbed the "correct" conventions of English. I know I've been guilty of dismissing people because of their grammar/spelling errors (I'm sure I'll make several in this post, BTW, thanks to Muphry's Law), and I've also posted regrettable grammar-mockery in place of rebuttal at times. Even when I was doing it, I knew that it wasn't quite fair or rigorous but Chandra's critique is a good frame for understanding precisely what's wrong with the practice.

One important issue that Chandra doesn't touch on in her essays is the way that this works in languages where an official academy defines formal correctness -- French and German, for example. English is very much up for grabs, thanks to the absence of any final authority over its rules. In other cases, there is a technically correct way of doing things, and an incorrect way -- presumably, this exacerbates the problem.

Literacy Privilege Checklist:

I can easily and safely navigate my way around the city I live in because I understand all of the posted signs, warnings and notifications.
* I can make healthy and informed choices about the products I purchase because I can accurately read their labels and price tags.
* I can safely use pharmaceuticals prescribed to me without having to remember the doctor’s or pharmacist’s instructions because I can accurately read their labels.
* When required to visit doctors, hospitals, government agencies, banks, or legal offices, I do not have to invent excuses to bring paperwork home so that someone else can read it to me. If I live alone, I do not have to expose myself to judgement and ridicule by asking the doctor, nurse, agent, clerk, lawyer or other employee to read it to me.
* I can independently make informed medical, legal, political and financial decisions about myself and my family because I can read and understand important documents.
* I can be sure that my paycheques and bills are accurate because I can read them to check for errors.
* I can acquire a driver’s license and its associated freedoms because I am able to complete the written test for a learner’s permit.
* I can accept invitations to a restaurant without anxiety because I know I will be able to read the menu.

Literacy Privilege: How I Learned to Check Mine Instead of Making Fun of People’s Grammar on the Internet

Literacy Privilege, Part 2: But Wait… You’re an English Teacher

Literacy Privilege, Part 3: A Few Final Points Before I Let This Topic Die

(via MeFi)

I liked this bit from her FAQ:

2. But people who write professionally for a living – journalists, authors, researchers, pundits, etc. – should surely be held to a higher standard than the rest of us!


2(b). Oh. So it’s okay to go all apeshit caps-locky self-righteous grammar-banshee on their ass when I see a mistake in one of their articles?

I am not able to grant or withhold permission for anyone to be a douche to anyone else. That is not my purpose here. I simply encourage a more compassionate and respectful approach in these situations.

Think of how many thousands of words a professional writer writes. What percentage of those words involves spelling or grammar errors? Probably a very small percentage. Professional writers are also human beings, and sometimes they slip up, or sometimes they have learned different rules than the ones you’ve learned. Correct them if it makes you feel better about the future of humanity, but maybe try to do so in a way that does not encourage brutal verbal abuse against all people who can’t spell.

Man, is this ever on the money. I've had people send me the most amazing, over-the-top, dramatic denunciations because I used grammar they didn't understand (UK usage, for example); presented fictional characters whose speech was colloquial (dialogue is privileged); or violated an imaginary grammar rule (for example, the made up prohibition on "double negatives"); or just made a typo (I type all day, and some of my keystrokes will be erroneous).

It's one thing to point out a typo, it's another thing to denounce its creator as an enemy of literacy and a bad example who will lead the children of the world to ruin.


          1. It’s threads like these that make one wonder about what else the max comment depth is crushing with its uncompromising tyranny.

  1. I agree that she’s making a great point in a really effective way. 

    Literacy privilege has a lot to do with class-based privilege, and with racial privilege. In fact, I hope she gave credit for the checklist idea to Peggy McIntosh (who did it, maybe first, with white privilege) — I couldn’t find any place over there where Chandra did.

    1.  Well, that is in why the dictionary is a dictionary. To tell you the proper way to say words so you sound like an upper-class subject, and not a Cockney chimney sweep.

  2. The privilege checklist was pretty eye-opening.

    But, as always, the privileges depend on an intersection of privileges. Someone with bad eyesight may not be able to access many of these privileges. Someone with the wrong allergies may not be able to access the privileges involving food, medicine, and access to restaurants, due to unlabelled ingredients, alternate names, etc., but someone who lacks literacy privilege and has the wrong allergies is in even worse shape.

    1. I fault the choice of the word “privilege” because of its association with “rights”.  I can preform all of those tasks because I worked to obtain them. No one gave me the privilege to read instructions, I paid attention in class, did my homework, and learned to read. I think of it as a reward for hard work.

      1. It’s funny, because your comment itself serves as proof of your privilege. It makes the privileged assumption that all children were in the same position to learn and study as you. The very notion of a level playing field with no advantages or disadvantages is false.

      2. No one gave me the privilege to read instructions, I paid attention in class, did my homework, and learned to read. I think of it as a reward for hard work.

        I think you what you meant to write was “I was fortunate enough to be provided with a supportive learning environment because people in my family and/or community worked very hard to provide me with one.”

        No one makes it on their own. The myth of the “self-made man” is a story that privileged people tell themselves to rationalize contempt of the less fortunate.

        1. So.. There are no autodidacts? What about Srinivasa Ramanujan? Frank Lloyd Wright? John Clare? Keith Moon? James Watt? Frederick Douglass?

          Focusing on the familiar, here in the US we have public libraries, free literacy programs, and public internet access. Unless you have a learning disability, there is nothing to prevent you from educating yourself and mastering your native tongue. 

          Blaming the world or your place in it for a lack of effort on your part is laughable. You don’t wait for family or community to provide you with a supportive learning environment. To wit, I submit Booker T Washington. Born into slavery, he worked in the salt furnaces and mines until he had saved enough wages to pay his own way to the Hampton Institute were he continued to work to pay for his education. He then parlayed his hard work and dedication towards his own education which eventually lead to a career in education.

          1. “Excellent”
            Actually ridiculous and obnoxious. It’s the “Oprah” school of fallacy. There are a million factors that children have no control of in terms of their education, from going to school hungry, stressed and dealing with violence at home to being scared that they’ll be shot or beaten on the way. 

            I didn’t have these troubles and I’m ‘educated’ enough to realize it and know that others do. Maybe you guys haven’t bettered yourselves as much as you think.

          2. Frank Lloyd Wright?

            Now I know you’re just fucking with me. Wright was the son of a lawyer and a teacher, and you’re holding him up as an example of someone who made it completely on his own without any social or educational advantages whatsoever?

            My point is not that highly successful people don’t work hard, it’s that being unsuccessful, or even illiterate, is not an indication that the subject in question is either lazy or entirely the master of their own fate.

          3. But if you don’t have good nutrition, you can’t take the same advantage of the education you get.

            And that’s just one argument.

      3. And because you had one of the better school systems, as did I, because the teachers didn’t encourage the bullies to beat you for looking different, because you could see what the teachers were writing on the blackboard, or get glasses if you couldn’t see, because the teachers didn’t beat you for holding the pencil with the wrong hand or the wrong grip, because you could hear what the teachers were saying, because you didn’t get seizures from the strobing of the lights in the classroom, because you didn’t get kicked out of the school or out of your home for being lgb or t, because you weren’t beaten unconscious or raped by the bullies, and so on.

        Not everyone has those privileges.

        1. Yes, it is harder for many and I was “better” suited to learn, but as show above in donovan acree’s comment, there are those who are not stopped by a sub-ideal education.

          1.  Its a logical fallacy, to take one example and generalize. It would be better served to state that some people are brilliant and manage to overcome adversity. but the world is not filled with exceptional people. the world by definition is filled with average people who on average do not overcome bad situations.

            Yes, there are exceptional people. They are the exception, not the rule.

      4. My father was exceedingly fortunate to have doctor parents who understood that he wasn’t lazy, but instead suffered from a learning disorder (back when there wasn’t even a term for such things).

        Many children fall through the cracks because they do not have an adult in their lives who can recognize such a problem and will/can do the work to try to solve it.

      5. No one gave me the privilege to read instructions, I paid attention in class, did my homework, and learned to read. I think of it as a reward for hard work.

        Oh ferchristssakes. 

        Unless you are an adult who had to conquer illiteracy at a more advanced age (which you very well may be, I accept, and therefore please ignore this) then your “hard work” was nothing more than having parents who read to you and teachers who taught you the ABCs.

        No one looks back on their childhood and says “man, I earned that literacy, I deserve all the rights I get with it.”

        If you had caretakers who read to you and had the privilege of being able to go to school at least through fifth grade, then you sound like the proverbial guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

        1.  So, kids in grade school don’t work hard to learn how to read and write? I’ll be sure to tell my kids that.

          1. Thats right, the teacher works hard to get 20-30 kids in a clasroom to work hard because if they were left in a room all by themselves, there might be cases where kids worked hard to decipher our written language, but most would not. In other words, kids work is contingent on the work of other people. This does not diminish their effort but it is not one born out of an intrinsic drive on the kids part.

          2. The corollary of my comment is that believing your hard work is your own, and forgetting what it took to get you to do things is what causes you to not notice the foundation of privilege that helped get you were you are today. You actually believe that YOU are fully responsible for your education.

        2. I totally disagree. I understood the value of an education because I saw what advanced degrees did for my parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Thank you for the out with an adult conquering illiteracy (excellent film Stanley & Iris). 

          Trust me I worked hard in school. I went beyond what was required, I read my older sister’s text books, I went to the library and read random subjects, and I still do today.

          You fail to give credit where is it due. Some people (myself included) worked hard to get where we are today.

          1. I understood the value of an education because I saw what advanced degrees did for my parents, grandparents, and other relatives.

            In other words, you were fortunate enough to grow up in a family that provided a positive learning environment that valued education. Well good for you.

            Now kindly stop pretending you’d be just as well off if you’d been born to drug addicts on skid row.

          2. Yet you fail to recognise the fact that parents, grandparents, and other relatives with degrees and that their learning influenced you was a privilege in itself. Try growing up with a family of drug addicts, no food on your shelves, in a violent ghetto, with only a very under resourced public school for education (to provide one simple, but realistic example); still think you’d have the equivalent literacy today?

            Nobody is arguing that you didn’t work hard. Nobody is arguing that there aren’t people that have worked exceedingly hard to overcome real difficulties. However denying that you had a privileged start compared to many, just makes you come across as both arrogant and ignorant of the difficulties many people face.

            Even people that have overcome sub-optimal learning conditions will have had some advantages along the way; a steady supply of food, a teacher or other person that took pity and decided to help out, no threat of violence, etc.

      6. Well, good for you! Now could you also tell us in what wonderous ways you all by yourself saw to it that you did not have learning disabilities, that some of us have the privilege of having?

        1. I did (and do) have elements of dyslexia and I worked through them. I needed glasses to see the blackboard and I wear hearing aids today. Don’t judge me.

          1. Guess what? If you’d been born in a less fortunate family your dyslexia, vision and hearing problems may not have even been diagnosed at a young age, much less addressed.

            I’m going to judge the hell out of you, because you don’t seem to have enough self-awareness to avoid judging people who are less privileged than yourself.

  3. There are a couple of assumptions here about who is being targeted for grammar snobbery. I’m not picking on people who had personal hardships in education or folks with learning challenges, or people for whom English is not a first language. I’m picking on people who have had opportunity and means, but don’t bother to use those to learn to speak and write well.

    1. And surely your exhaustive personal research into people’s lives ensures that in each case you are correctly judging the cause of their “errors”.

      1. But refusing to make decisions due to the impossibility of perfect knowledge is self-defeating.

        So, for example, while I realize that all my perceptions are fallible, and that George W. Bush may really be the sock-puppet of a vast alien hyperintelligence, I’m still perfectly willing to operate on my considered judgement that GWB is a New Englander and his fake Texas accent and broken grammar are the result of either linguistic incompetence or cynical political posturing.

        1. I’ve always thought it was a bit of both. I’ve never thought he was *dumb* as so many people liked to say. A bad guy? yeah, but no dummy.

          1. I once saw a TV clip where Bush was talking to a non-US audience and said “nuclear”, instead of saying “nuke-u-lur” the way he does when talking to Americans.

        2. Well don’t extend things to absurdity – we make decisions on imperfect knowledge all the time. It is more a matter of knowing how reasonable your assumption is based on the knowledge you DO have, and what the risk and benefit of acting on that assumption is.

          Determining the motivations of an important politician and hassling some stranger for their spelling have very different levels of import to your life, and you should act accordingly. “Risk little to gain little, risk a lot to gain a lot.”

      2. What about friends who you know have very poor spelling, are adept enough to use an as you type spell checker, but don’t?

        I’ve mocked them (in private, verbally, with people who were even more annoyed with their spelling than I.

        Spelling should mostly be a done deal, in most contexts today, you have spelling checkers, you may have to work a little to figure out what right is (I know I do), and you can still make usage errors, but restricting yourself to words in the dictionary is easy enough.

      1. How is it my opinion? I said that I specifically reserve my grammar snarking for people I know whom I know don’t fit any of that criteria. That’s not an opinion.

        1. I said that I specifically reserve my grammar snarking for people I know whom I know don’t fit any of that criteria.

          I said that I specifically reserve my grammar snarking for people whom I know, whom I also know don’t fit any of that those criteria.

          1. I said that I specifically reserve my grammar snarking for people whom I know, who I also know don’t fit any of those criteria.
            The second “who” is the subject of a verb, so it should be in the nominative case.
            It’s good to make some mistakes every once in a while, so as not to embarrass less privileged people by a too ostentatious display of correct grammar, don’t you agree?

          2. No. It refers to “people”, which is the object of “I know”, so no dice on the nominative. Your retcon is a completely different sentence structure.

          3. @mb81 @Antinous_Moderator:disqus:

            Hmm, but you would say “I know they don’t fit any of those criteria”, not “I know them don’t fit …”

            So is “who[m]” to be considered the subject of “don’t” or the object of “know”?

            Suggestion: recast the sentence to “whom I know not to fit any of those criteria”, and the whole question goes away.

          4. The sentence is ugly because there’s a redundant clause in it.

            “I specifically reserve my grammar snarking for people I know whom I know don’t fit any of that criteria.”
            — should be —
            “I specifically reserve my grammar snarking for people whom I know don’t fit any of those criteria.”

            You can’t very well know that they “don’t fit any of that criteria” if you don’t “know” them in the first place.

          5. I think the following sentence has a similar structure:
            You cannot deny what you know is true.
            One can read this in two ways, either
            You cannot deny that whatever you know is the truth
            You cannot deny that which is true, to your knowledge.
            I go with the second reading, in which the relative pronoun is the subject.
            Anyway, English grammar makes my head explode, it’s been a while since I studied grammar in middle school, and, right or wrong, I regret spending one hour thinking this through.

        2. “‘Don’t be a dick’ is a pretty universally accepted standard of behavior” is wildly optimistic though…

    2. And how do you know that the people you pick on did not bother? I blog and I am somewhat known in my niche (somewhat, I am by no means a household name) and people just assume that I am a native English speaker whereas I am not. I have had a mainstream media journalist poke fun at some weird sentence construction I once wrote (yes, looking back I can see how it was a bit weird and heavily influenced by my native language). It hurt when this journo did that, mostly because of the unfairness of the situation (a native English speaker making fun of someone who, no matter how fluet might appear, will always struggle with these odd cultural and language issues). On the internet, unless someone discloses the entirety of their life history, we have no way of knowing who did not bother and who just struggles because they cannot always do better.

      1. Because I only grammar snob to people I know. As could easily be inferred from the criteria I plugged in. I wouldn’t grammar snob you, because I’m not familiar with who you are.

        Suggesting we should never, ever grammar snob anyone because gosh, ‘some people might have good reasons for writing English poorly’ is silly.

        Certainly no one should be a grammar snob to people to everyone everywhere on the internet. That goes without saying, doesn’t it? “Don’t be a dick” is a pretty universally accepted standard of behavior.

        1.  If the people you “grammar-snob” to put up with your “grammar snobness”, then great (Though I suspect they too think you’re being a jerk but put up with you anyway because you are a friend)

          But, I don’t see how you are adding to a conversation on grammar snobbing to a general audience by merely stating this and then defending your position.

          It would make sense if you read this and felt it somehow described you and you needed to defend yourself.

      2. I manage some really weird sentence construction, and I speak good English, was raised and educated in a good environment, I don’t speak any other languages, but I still have to really pay attention to be coherent with written language.

    3. I agree.  Our society needs norms that encourage learning, and which stigmatize ignorance.  Accommodations must of course be made for those with fewer resources (neurological, monetary, or geographical), and there is a point where you can get too pedantic.

      But, for example, the people on Twitter who say that they’re worried that the US may go over “the physical cliff” SHOULD be made fun of.  VOTING-AGE CITIZENS SHOULD BE FAMILIAR WITH THE WORD “FISCAL.”

        1. With all the new business for the funeral homes and casket manufacturers, we’ll be out of recession in no time!

        2. It would be more fiscally responsible to save money on ammo and just push them over a physical cliff.

    4.  Yeah, and it still makes you an pilkunnussija, and an asshole.

      Fix the communications layer in order to exchange ideas, but when grammar and spelling are not interfering with the exchange of ideas then just let it go and continue to conversation. What we see in the wild is pilkunnussija who dont actually understand the topic they are debating use grammar as an excuse to shut down a conversation. The world can do without people like that.

      1. Yep, pilkunnussija is a much better way to describe a Grammar Nazi than… well, Grammar Nazi. A Grammar Nazi seldom is actually a Nazi, but he or she sure is a pilkunnussija. It’s also such a lovely word, we really should export it more and much wider!  

        1. I prefer the term Grammar Vigilante (in the Spanish sense of the term). Standing watch over the internet like a sentry; protecting its users; maintaining order and defending it against the hordes of grammatical vandals who would tear it apart with their errors.

          You’re welcome, by the way.

      2.  But what you’re describing isn’t remotely what I do. Again, with the assumptions. Fixing the communications layer is important – if I don’t know the person, I *ask* what they mean, rather than snarking on them. Language and its usage is important to get the message from sender to receiver properly.

        If I know the person and know they should know better, I feel free to snark.

    5. How on earth do you know who has a learning disability and who hasn’t??? I tried to check in the mirror for any tattoos on my forhead, I couldn’t find a “Learning disabled” note taped to my back, either. Do tell, I’m getting paranoid!!!!!

      1. I don’t. Therefore I only act like a grammar snob to *people I actually know* not strangers on the internet. As I basically said in my comment.

        Acting like a grammar snob to people you don’t know is basically just being a douche-canoe, which is, of course, something you shouldn’t do, but we hardly need an entire article to address that. That’s something we generally expect out of people without needed to write entire articles about it on Boing Boing.

        1. So… you are a grammar snob to your friends and family??? Um… you must be such fun at parties.

          And I still wonder how you know. I’ve mentioned my learning disability to only a handful of people IRL, I would _never_ mention it in a professional setting.

          1. I’m a blast at parties, actually.

            It’s interesting how people can chide me for teasing my friends and family about their grammar while *at the same time* be huge douche-canoes to me for expressing the idea that at some times and in some circumstances, it actually is okay to champion communicating as well as we possibly can.

  4. I have a couple of friends that I can make cringe all the way to half-fetal with one sentence, and that sentence is this:

    “Orthographic spelling and strict grammar are artifacts of the era of mass print publication, and, as such, will be regarded by historians as a peculiar 20th century fad.”

    Human languages are not so much spoken as SUNG. Pitch matters; intonation matters. But (especially in English!) when the writing system was devised, the musical notation was left out, in the interest of speed and brevity. But it didn’t used to matter, because most written material consisted of memory aids for people already familiar with the material. You don’t get a single written work handed over to multiple people who are unfamiliar with what the work “says” before they read it until you get mass production, and so it’s not a coincidence that that’s when we see the rise of strict dictionaries of spelling and strict grammar manuals. Those strict dictionaries and grammar manuals were the attempt by industrial-age savants to construct an ARTIFICIAL dialect of English, one just as artificial as Mandarin Chinese (and serving most of the same functions), that would make it possible to convey meaning in a monotone without introducing more ambiguity.

    Except that, with the narrow exception of a few upper-middle-class professionals, there has never been a time, even during that time, when people got most of their information and engaged in most of their conversations in written English. Even before the radio, then TV, then CATV, then Internet podcasting and streaming video revolutions, people were receiving and exchanging most of their information in sung form, in natural English, reverting only to written form when necessary. As reading and writing get replaced, more and more, by video and audio and old-fashioned conversation, the need for this artificial dialect of English will continue to atrophy.

    1. Said the man in a several-paragraph long, written comment.

      So, yeah. We might have the written word for just a few more years.

    2. P.S. One side effect of this process is already visible: even in middle class and (increasingly) upper-middle class English, the apostrophe has become a purely optional mark, with no strict linguistic meaning, to be included or omitted as suits the decorative needs of the writer, painter, or illustrator.

          1. Might be regional differences, but I’ve yet to see any *extra* apostrophes sneaking in before a “t”. Much more commonly I see them missing from where I’d have put them.

            It’s 10 p’m’: Do *you* know where your apostrophe is?

          2. I see nothing in your comment about “*extra*” apostrophes. I was talking about can’t, won’t, etc.

    3. I may be autistic. I know I am tone-deaf, although I don’t know what tone is supposed to refer to. I have trouble perceiving pitch and intonation, and have trouble varying my own.

      Maybe to some deaf people, spoken language seems artificial?

      Maybe to some blind people, written language seems artificial?

      To me, what you regard as natural language seems artificial.

    4. There are real, honest-to-god tonal language on earth but English is not one of them.  Intonation does carry some information but not usually enough to matter.  (When I read, the narrative voice in my head reads with intonation; my brain fills in the intonation on the basis of how the sentiment is written.  That is, almost all the tonal information can be conveyed easily through the written word.) 

      It’s strange that you’d refer to Mandarin Chinese, one of the most widely-used languages in the world, as “artificial.”  Incidentally, Mandarin really is a tonal language.

      1.  Once there was a lecturer talking about the double negative, “In English, we do not use the double negative! For in English the double negative makes a positive,” he declared. “Never,” he continued wryly, “of course, do two positives make a negative!”

        To which a wag in the back replied ‘Yeah, right.”

  5. What about the incompetence of editors? Is that fair game? Because I read quite a big amount of comics and if I had a dollar (in my case a euro) for each mistake I find (mainly on the big two Marvel and DC) I would be a rich man. They have editors, the comic goes through a number of supposedly literate people who should catch stuff such as “would of” instead of “would have”. I don’t really blame the writer, everyone has brain farts, but there is a team of people meant to catch that kind of stuff supporting the writer and making him or her look bad. 

    1. Unless “would of” is being used as a legitimate colloquial. Sometimes there is such thing as “bad editing”, but just because something doesn’t match the way you were taught it doesn’t mean that people don’t actually speak that way, and that you would represent that in a work of fiction.

      1. “Would of” is typically a misapprehension of “would’ve”, and therefore is a perfectly cromulent eggsample of the proper English contraction of “would have”.

          1. Believe me, in mid-atlantic USA TV news anchor English (which is the gold standard hereabouts) they sound abscrewloosely identical.  The “L” is completely silent, and the OU combinations in “would” and “should” are pronouced as the OO in “wood” or the U in “pudding”.

            From your nym, I’d guess you are Welsh, and thus familiar with extremely whimsical spellings.

      2. Yes, it would make some sense (although it’s just miswriting what is heard) if it would be consistent with the character, although I have a hard time believing that it is how Bruce Wayne (multimillionare genius) or Clark Kent (ace reporter) would talk.

  6. Back in the day, people would spell words in a variety of ways since there wasn’t a standard everyone could refer to. 

    That’s why Daniel Webster compiled an English language dictionary so everyone could look up how to spell. He created his dictionary, not because he was a dick, but  because creative spellings led to misunderstandings. 

    Yes Cory, there really are language standards and we’re the beneficiaries of them. To claim their racist, elitist or oppressive is absurd as they’re readily available to anyone who bothers to look them up.

    Having standards doesn’t mean the language can’t change. Hell, look up Posse Comitatus and you’ll see 3 or 4 definitions that mean something entirely different than its meaning when I first heard it used. Where it was a common slang expression when I was young, few use it now.

    1. …to claim that privilege doesn’t exist just because anyone can look the answer up is ridiculous.  I can look up every law on the books too; doesn’t mean I stand a chance arguing one with an actual lawyer who already knows them.

      Did you bother to check every single word in your post individually against the dictionary before you posted it?  No, of course not.  You didn’t need to.

        1. Love it!  

          Sorry, this really strikes me, as “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” so that we pulled our son out of public school, was that his team of teachers didn’t seem to know the difference between “your” and “you’re” and “their” and “they’re.”  I don’t know if they proof-read or edited each other’s work.  Maybe they just didn’t know, even though they were college graduates.  What I do know is that they sent my first grader home with 2 hours worth of homework each night, reinforcing incorrect grammar.  So, without “grammar police” the situation is only going to get worse.

          1. Did you bother trying to talk to the teachers in question, their supervisors, or the school administrators before pulling your child out of school?

            Not that I’m against homeschooling or private schools, just that this seems like a relatively easy problem to correct. My public school education included some really stellar grammar instruction. I’ve forgotten almost all of it but that’s on me.

          2. You’d be surprised at how poorly equipped many teachers are to teach. And with the pay (if you work it out to an hourly basis) barely over minimum wage, it’s hard to recruit better trained replacements.

            My children got used to me correcting the grammar in their books when they were still toddlers. When they started school, I would pull out the blue editing pencil and use it liberally on their homework assignments as well….the parts that the teacher or textbook had written incorrectly.

            It’s quite depressing, actually.

      1. “To claim their racist so they could prepare it for a proper roasting, the slavery descendants had to check its ancestors against their own. This step was necessary to ensure actual relations in terms of mastery and bondage.”

        The Demographic Winter: A Novel, by I. P. Withfear

    2. Webster died 160 years ago. The largest pool of native English speakers are in India, and speak an English that is not Webster correct. Very soon, the second largest pool of English speakers will live in China. They will speak another version of the language. The English with which you defend Webster is a rump dialect spoken by people who’ve declared that their mispronounced German, French and Latin words are the correctly mispronounced ones, while everyone else’s are wrong, because they say so, so there.

      1. Indian English is its own thing and is recognized as such by linguists. For that matter, so are American and Canadian English. On the other hand, my sense is that second-language learners in China are not trying to create a Chinglish. They’re trying to learn one of the standard forms of English, so invoking them as evidence that Webster is irrelevant doesn’t seem to hold water.

      2. Cory, I just want to congratulate you on the use of the term “rump dialect”.  I’m totally stealing that!

      1. Actually, he was fond of *less* creative spellings but more boring ones that actually reflected how people say words —  plow rather than plough, for example. Maybe in the Middle Ages people did say plo-OGAH, but clearly within recent centuries they said “plow”.

        1. I’m going to say “plo-OOGAH” every time I need to refer to a plow/plough from now on.

          …which is unfortunately not very often. People might get annoyed if I were to do it for “thro-OOGAH,” though..

        2. The gh in “plough” may come from a plain g.

          The gh in “sight” probably comes from an x.

          The gh in “through” probably comes from an x.

          The gh in “ghoti” comes from an f.

          I’m not aware of any English gh that comes from syllabic gah.

          1. Well, according to Wikipedia, that draws on Old Norse plogr. I assume it’s masculine o-declension, not a-declension?

            West Germanic drops the masculine o-declension endings [-az to -], while North Gemanic changes them [-az to -r]. But I’m not sure how the -r becomes -a, unless Swedish borrowed the word at least twice and with different declensions???

    3. Anyone is free to create a dictionary, but that doesn’t give them any sort of authority over what is part of the language and what is not.

      English has standards, that’s not the problem.  The problem is we have too many standards.  Because these standards come from two different base languages their rules come into conflict, which is why we have more exceptions in our language than we have rules.  If you just look at French and German on the other hand, there are central bodies to make sure that the official language has coherent rules, and that new words and phrases jive with those rules.

    4. Noah Webster (not Daniel, btw. See what I just did there?) had a specific political agenda, namely, to distinguish and separate American English from British English, viz.: “a capital advantage of this reform in these states would be, that it would make a difference between the English orthography and the American. This will startle those who have not attended to the subject; but I am confident that such an event is an object of vast political consequence.” All orthography, and rules of grammar, are necessarily social. Thus language rules, be they formal or informal, replicate existing social stratification. Is that a surprise? And once we accept that differences exist across social strata, then insisting on the absolute correctness of one form is simply the assertion of privilege. 
      Now, what’s also interesting is the idea that asserting privilege is not a valid form of argument. That is, if I say, I am more powerful (knowledgeable, wealthier) than you, therefore your argument, however framed, is invalid, I am accused of (logical) fallacy. But this merely privileges logic as a frame for convincing others — and there is substantial evidence that logic is a poor means of changing opinions (e.g. ).

      Thus, in this response, I have used a factual correction, high diction, and careful and standard orthography, to assert privilege against your argument, without ever bringing up any of the ideas you raise in your post. Do you deny its effectiveness? And so I cite a relevant xkcd and disappear

    5.  Actually, many educators think that the spelling rules in the English language are the main reasons why English-speaking developed countries have so much more trouble teaching literacy skills than other cultures do.  I wouldn’t suggest making your brave stand on the basis of what any non-English speaker will tell you are some of the world’s most bizarre and unintuitive orthographic principles.

  7. And on a related note, don’t make fun of me when I mess up at work either, because privilege and whatever.

  8. Double dashes? Does no one understand the proper use of em dashes ‘—’? This is a mockery. It’s a tragedy. It’s a.. it’s a tragimockery!

    [sips tea loudly and harumphs repeatedly while mumbling that the golden years of society have passed and are never to return, begins campaign to save Western Civilization with a letter to the editor of the local paper expressing concerns for the intertwixt fates of the World Wide Web and em dashes]

      1. Indeed, we have seen this phenomena previously with the fall of the Tower of Babel, have we not? HAVE WE NOT?

        [adds Appendix C “The Dark Lord Knuth Stands at the Perimeter Plotting Destruction of Our Tower to Grammatical Paradise”]

  9. “Literacy Privilege — the invisible privilege that accrues to people who have the facility to write well and clearly, and who have absorbed the “correct” conventions of English.”

    this is abuse of the word “privilege”. one is not born with the facility to write well and clearly – it has to be taught, learned, practiced. it takes work. and that work, acquiring a working knowledge of the rules of a system, does not grant one a privilege; it makes one an expert. and using knowledge you’ve gained to wheedle people who don’t know (or who accidentally violate, or casually ignore) the rules of the system, isn’t an abuse of privilege; it’s being a pedant. and being obnoxious about the rules just being an obnoxious pedant.

    it’s also a bit insulting, since “privilege” has taken on a pejorative cast in recent years – it’s come to suggest “spoiled”, “undeserving”, “haughty”. and none of that necessarily applies to people who have simply learned the standard English rules.

    encourage people to avoid being obnoxious pedants, sure. but don’t make people who have learned a skill feel like they’ve crossed some class boundary and could be subjected to finger-wagging by yet another group of self-appointed thought police.

      1. if uneven distribution of opportunity is your criteria, then everything which can be learned has an associated privilege. as does everything which can be done, heard, smelled, seen, or otherwise experienced. what good is accomplished by attaching the semi-insulting word “privilege” to everything ?

        people will always know their local language better than people who are not local. that’s just how human learning works. that is not worth the word “privilege”.

        “don’t be an obnoxious pedantic” is what needs teaching. leave content-free concepts like “privilege” out of it.

        1.  No, not everything. Everything that one group is taught automatically and other groups need to make a long, concerted effort to acquire, and which confers notable advantages. When one particular dialect of a language is used as a standard to dismiss the views of other dialects, that’s a privilege.

          A more obvious example is the elaborate rules of precedence and etiquette in earlier English society. Those children raised in an aristocratic household would learn these arbitrary rules as standard education. Anybody else would have trouble finding information on what proper noble etiquette was (but it wouldn’t be impossible) and trouble turning it into second nature not learning it as a child. This then became a tool for weeding out those born ‘important’, and those ‘putting on airs’. It’s just knowledge, it’s not skin color, but clearly it was a privilege.

          Now, the degree and commonality and relative importance of this issue can be debated ad nauseum. But it’s wrong to state that something learned can’t be a privilege.

        2. leave content-free concepts like “privilege” out of it.

          Just because you have so much of something that you can afford to pretend that it doesn’t exist, doesn’t make it true.

      2. The opportunity to learn and practice anything is unevenly distributed. Calling that opportunity a “privilege” undermines the meaning of “privilege.” Oh, when I think of almost infinite privileges I have been denied . . .

        1. You wouldn’t consider being born wealthy and lucky enough to go to New Trier vs. a school in Englewood a privilege? I sure would.

          1. He made uneven distribution the criterion for privilege. That is plainly in error. New Trier v. Englewood certainly reflects privilege. Uneven distribution of opportunity not.

          2. What about people who have had the privilege of going to a school such as New Trier yet are mentally lazy, and it shows in their communications skills?

            Those are the people who deserve every “grammar bully*” correction they get.

            *See drew millecchia’s post below.

          3. Pretty much every white revolutionary that I know who comes from the Chicago area went to New Trier. The grammar in our propaganda was impeccable.

          4. Curiously, all the friends I know that went there ended up having careers in music, or at least dabbling.

          5. Certainly plenty of people ended up in Hollywood. One friend of mine watched Ann-Margret perform in his high school variety show.

      3. Erm, nope, not entirely: otherwise, kindly account for the wide disparity in knowledge and praxis of grammar, spelling, and other conventions even within those of relatively the same social class, educational history, etc. Lots of the wealthy and privileged can’t write worth a damn, nor do they presumably care too much about spelling and where the commas go: professionals like me are paid to do that for them! “Proper” English undoubtedly has class vectors, sure, but it’s not solely an effect of class or privilege alone, nor is it something opaque or unnecessarily difficult.

          1. Sure, and just because one relatively lacks a certain privilege doesn’t mean that one fails to take full advantage of the privileges or opportunities one does have, privileges that are often related to the privileges that one lacks. Class, power, wealth, oppression are all vectors, what I said. But think of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln each learning how to read and write under very unfavorable conditions (inhumanly unfavorable in Douglass’s case). A technology like literacy is very ground up, and while privilege undeniably helps one to master this essential technology, there are many other ways whereby one can acquire it.

          2. Actually, literacy rates may very well have been higher in the US in the mid-1800’s than they are today.  I’m not sure Lincoln learned to write in unfavorable circumstances at all: without television or radio, the only connection between rural populations and the culture at large was the written word and so there was a massive incentive for everyone to become literate.

            I think you underestimate the difficulty and opacity of learning literary skills.  It comes naturally if one is motivated as a young child; otherwise it is quite difficult.  Do you blame children for not understanding the impact that failing to acquire basic skills will have on the rest of their lives when they’re obviously not in a position to understand such things?

    1. It’s insulting only if you’re insulted by unpleasant truths.

      While agreeing that literacy takes work, it’s would be be ridiculous and, yes, privileged for me to not to recognise that my expensive grammar-school education gave me a huge advantage. Someone just as smart and more hard-working, but poorer and living in an area with poor language education, would not have achieved the same results.

      Which is the definition of privilege.

      (And isn’t it interesting that in the UK my expensive private school is a “grammar school”?  Pause, and consider.)

      1. And for a more neutral example on the subject of expertise, my skill with computers is a privilege too.  Yes, even though it required talent and years of hard work and learning.  (Unless I’m suffering from the delusion that every child in the 80s had a computer to practice on, just because all my middle-class friends did.)

    2. Some people can be taught – perhaps a majority can be taught. Breaking it down we know a majority can be taught to read but it’s doubtful a majority can be taught to write well or even convincingly.

      Some people for whatever reason lack an aptitude for language and it’s horrible the way they are normally treated. While not every opportunity is denied to them most are throughly and completely closed off.

      Everybody is told they need secondary education but it is a darwinian system. You can earn 140 credits but if you can’t write a 10 page essay you are not going to graduate. The collage has standards, take your debt and your no degree having ass and GTFO.

      How joyful to be part of the information economy when you can not clearly communicate your information or when it’s ridiculed for the way it’s been put on paper.

    3.  It wouldnt be an issue is the pilkunnussija were’nt self righteous assholes who use grammar to dismiss legitimate ideas or to judge the merit of another human being.

      If funny when you hear people who have different dialects talk about particle physics. The snobbery over the protocol used to communicate would be funny if werent for how its used to terminate communication.

      And who is it done by? Idiots more concerned with ‘how and idea is stated’ and the actual idea. One might as well be a redneck scream ‘dis am Merica, speak english, as its the same self righteous bigotry.

    4. but don’t make people who have learned a skill feel like they’ve crossed some class boundary and could be subjected to finger-wagging by yet another group of self-appointed thought police.

      Is that how it makes you feel?  Why do you think that is?

      I’m fine with the concept and I still don’t feel guilty or anything like that.  Anyone wants to “finger-wag” me for being literate I’ll just laugh at them; I really don’t get the sense that’s the intention here.

    5.  I like this. It’s like saying Doctors are healing privileged because they went to med school, and should shut their advice hole when telling people to not put candles in their ears, or eat vegetables.

      1.  Except this is a straw man argument, what really happens is that “doctors” who know a lot about medicine tell you to shut your pie hole about particle physics because you don’t know your spleen from your liver.

    6.  According to your view, pedantic people are the problem, I agree with you.

      You also try to make the point that having more knowledge than other people because you worked at it is not a privilege, which makes the assumption that everybody starts out with a level playing field, which is not true.

      100 years ago, not everybody could read, not because they couldn’t learn, but many because it was believed they shouldn’t be taught.

      You are making the assumption that since things are better now, then the world is fair now as well. This is not true.

      Maybe 100 years from now, 100% of people who are ignorant on any given subject will be ignorant because they do not wish to work hard at knowing, That is not true of today anywhere in the world.

      Being privileged means having/knowing something other people don’t have/know. Being privileged in this manner is not inherently bad. Finding fault in others because they do not possess something which you do, can be. (Bad. I mean, it can be bad).

  10. Where did the prohoibition against double negatives come from? Was it imposed on the language because a minus times a minus is a plus so double negatives must cancel out? Problem is now without a context and a code you cannot tell which rule to apply. Do double negatives cancel or not? Forcing language into rigid rules against its natural inclination only increases ambiguity and not clarity.

    1. Or, alternatively, we could agree that two negatives in a sentence creates ambiguity and is to be avoided. In fact, the “it’s just a made up rule” contingent seem to ignore the utility in avoiding ambiguity. If we need some basic guidelines that help us identify impending ambiguity, so be it.

      1.  double negatives only sometimes create ambiguity. Often double negatives have a rhetorical purpose: see “not unconstitutional” vs “constitutional”.  You can’t not see that, right?

        1. Actually, that’s exactly my point about basic guidelines. There are times when almost any English usage more accurately conveys a specific idea than the standard equivalent. In that case the double negative is not “wrong.” In most cases, double negatives do create ambiguity, so in most cases they should be avoided. We actually agree.

          1. Whatever. Obviously it is impossible to not end up without ambiguity if you just don’t do what you’re not supposed to.

        2.  But as I understand the prohibition against double negatives, it’s only the prohibition of using “not unconstitutional” to mean “not constitutional.” Or against “Never knew nobody” instead of “never knew anybody.” The ambiguity comes from the fact that double negatives used that fashion might be a stylistic canceling out of the negative – “not unconstitutional”, or it might be emphatic. It’s clearer in speech because you can hear where the emphasis lies but less clear in written form.

        3. You can’t not see that, right?

          That’s not a double negative as meant in this discussion.  That’s a style, not an error.

      2.  Clarity isn’t the only (or even) major point of language. English speakers have used multiple negatives as intensifiers since Chaucer. English isn’t mathematics, so negatives don’t multiply into positives.

        “No way no how, I’m not going in there, not ever!” is not ambiguous. It is expressive. Made-up language rules that undermine expressivity are just dumb.

        A rule against uninentional ambiguity is one thing. A rule against double negatives (a feature in many of the latinate languages that are ancestors of, or cousins to, English) is unrelated to clarity, and is as silly as the supposed rule against split infinitives.

        1. “A rule against unintentional ambiguity” is meant ironically right? Because it was unintentional, which means the writer likely does not perceive the ambiguity.

          That being said, yes, “no how, no way,” etc etc is expressive without being ambiguous. There’s a time and a place for everything. That doesn’t make the general idea that double negatives are to be avoided “made up” or “wrong.” It just means it’s too simplistic.

        2. English is Germanic, not Italic.

          It shows up, for example, in the infinitive of purpose, absent from Latin, in the use of to as an independent marker for certain infinitives, in the use of the verbs to will and to have as tense and aspect markers, and in the vocabulary.

        3. That’s less an example of a double negative than it is an example of a sentence with four negatives that do different things.  A true double negative — “I don’t got no pencil” — means, in that case, that the speaker DOES have a pencil.

          1. No, it does not mean that. Everyone knows exactly what the speaker means, and only pedants pretend to be confused. Language is not mathematical logic, and the word “not” in English does not always correspond to the Boolean NOT operation (where NOT NOT x is always x).

            Consider these four sentences: 1P: You must do the software release today.  1N: You must not do the software release today. 2P: You have to do the software release today.  2N: You don’t have to do the software release today.

            In English, 1P and 2P mean the same thing, but 1N and 2N definitely do not. However, if you translate word-by-word into German, “musst nicht” means “don’t have to”, it does not mean “must not”, because it is a true negation.  In English, the word “not” attached to “must” does not negate the sentence! I know two German software developers who got into very big trouble over just this language issue.

          1. It’s also a useful response when people whine about ending sentences with prepositions (which is a perfectly sensible thing to do in a Germanic language, even though it doesn’t work in Latin.)

      3. Two negatives creates. Wonderful. Consciously Intentional or not, does the creates accidentally agree with the singular ‘in a sentence’, or an elliptical ‘the use of’?

    2. I could be wrong, but I think the prohibition against double negatives comes almost exclusively from grade school teachers whose students say things like, “I don’t got no pencils”.

      The teacher may be too lazy to explain that such a double negative implies that the student does, in fact, have pencils, or might think such an explanation would be too confusing, or also grew up with the same prohibition and never gave it any thought. We’ve probably all had teachers who didn’t fully understand what they were teaching.

      I also think it’s safe to say there are times when it’s okay to use double negatives. In fact I think there’s no reason not to break any grammatical rule when the rule gets in the way of clarity. Between grammatical correctness and clarity we should almost always opt for the latter.

      1. I agree with you on the origin of double negatives. I imagine that for parents and teachers a double negative is an opportunity, to make a kid aware of what is being said as well as to inflict forward the damage which they once suffered.

        I can sympathize with the teachers; they’re tasked with giving each kid a chance at conformity and its rewards, and reflexive double negatives will be a noticeable mark of a blue collar upbringing that may deny them some opportunity.

        That’s not to say anything against double negatives; it would be nice if we were less lazy in our class judgments, or less eager to separate ourselves by superficialities, though I’m not holding my breath. But double negatives were always a convention, just like the rest of it. Some versions of our language have probably at times preferred that sort of agreement between elements of a sentence — the Queen’s doesn’t, and I care about that almost as little as I care about her.

      2.  Well, if they don’t got no pencils, teacher ain’t gonna get no goddamn work. Teacher wants to sort that pencil shit out or no nothing is gonna get done.

    3. “Was it imposed on the language because a minus times a minus is a plus so double negatives must cancel out? ”

      yep. the thinking was: a double negative unnecessarily complicates a sentence. if you want to state the affirmative, just state it; don’t force the user to do the backtracking needed to keep your subjects’ polarity up to date.

    4.  As a scientist, native speaker, and former English major, double negative makes a positive is just elemental logic. You shouldn’t write one when you could use a simpler positive statement. It would be more efficient, and as ChicagoD points out, easier to understand.

  11. Another point, and I want to raise this one separately so it attracts its own replies: Noam Chomsky was a linguist before he was a conspiracy theorist, and as a linguist, he had a lot to say about the political, hegemonic function of formal written English. After collecting data on what dialect of English was used in what mass media, he observed that, before any political issue appears in the mass media or is put to the voters, there is a long discussion among the elites and their employees as to what possible solutions to rule out, to label as “radical.” That discussion mostly takes place in the pages of policy journals that are theoretically available to the public. But it takes place in a dialect of English that is ONLY taught in Ivy League schools.

    It was Chomsky’s argument, in /Managing Consent,/ that the role of the elite college in America is to increase stability by drawing off the most ambitious members of the middle class and of the poor, socialize them to identify with their new friends in the hereditary ruling class (who get preferential admission to the Ivy League schools, as “legacies”), and, most importantly, to teach them the dialect of English that will be used to cue them in, before the rest of the population, that certain political ideas are being discussed and to ensure that, should they choose to join that discussion, they do so in ways that the potentially quite angry working class and middle class will not be able to follow.

    So when you vehemently insist that nobody can be taken seriously unless they can communicate in Ivy League Formal English, you’re demonstrating something about yourself: that you’re either one of ruling class, or that you were raised by, and internalized the values of, parents or teachers who had the ambition that you might grow up to join the ruling class. And the political function that you’re performing, by delegitimizing all other dialects of English, is to defend aristocracy.

    1. Is the author here asserting that “nobody can be taken seriously unless they can communicate in Ivy League Formal English”?  I really didn’t get that impression – “understanding the instructions on pharmaceutical packages well enough to ensure my safety” is a different thing from “deciphering the nigh-impenetrable jargon of specialist journals”.

      It’s entirely possible I’m missing your point – is someone else the one making the assertions you’re responding to?

      1. The really brutal thing about Chomsky’s Ivy League Formal English theory is that the poor kids he taught at MIT evidently could not have understood any of it. If only they were at Harvard instead.

    2.  If you refer to Noam Chomsky as a conspiracy theorist, you’re also demonstrating something about yourself.

        1. Indeed, that you don’t care if somebody makes a predictable, tired joke that suggests that Chomsky is a fraud and shouldn’t be mentioned. Funnily enough, the OP was likely somewhat motivated to mention him just so he could add the ‘conspiracy theory’ cut down.

        2. Not very much, though.  There are at least three distinct groups that reference Chomsky routinely and I haven’t really declared membership in any specific group.  My comment in re: the education of Pantagruel was far more revealing, I think.

        3. Oh, do go on.  I’ve been waiting for a long time to hear a criticism of Chomsky that’s actually based on 1) facts about the world and 2) things Chomsky has actually argued.

          Most attacks on Chomsky seem to start from the premise that Chomsky is evil and consist mostly of talking about how evil he is.

          1. What it reveals to me is not necessarily critical of Chomsky. Lots of his work in linguistics is still the starting point for lots of linguistics classes. However, it’s the starting point, not the end point. That’s only for internet comments.

            So, what it reveals to me is that people are cherry-picking statements and concepts that may be fine in and of themselves, but do not reflect two or three decades of further work and research.

          2. Seemed like you were commenting on Chomsky’s politics and people who approvingly cite Chomsky’s politics, but either way it doesn’t make much sense to me. Referring to Chomsky reveals what about who? Does context matter?

          3. Well, this isn’t it then.

            The OP is wrong.

            On the trivial: The book isn’t Managing Consent, it’s Manufacturing Consent.

            On the substantial: That elite education institutions train their students in a secret language that will be opaque so “that the potentially quite angry working class and middle class will not be able to follow” is as complete a misrepresentation of Chomsky’s theses as you would ever be able to find.

  12. The major problem is the few rotten apples that spoil the barrel.

    Everyone slips up in language. It is a FACT of language. It is how we LEARN language, and even how language EVOLVES in many cases.

    People correct each other about these slip ups. That’s fine, that’s normal, that’s healthy. In fact, most people are perfectly polite about it. But then there are the handful of jerks who go about doing it in negative and self righteous ways.

    Now, some cases of poor language usage are just absurd. Pick any random youtube comment, for example, and you have a decent chance of seeing a crime against communication. These are mistakes that are entirely avoidable, that anyone who has been through even the most cursory of compulsory education will have been taught, and that are chiefly the product of laziness and a failure to care about communicating poorly. They’re people failing to meet even the most basic expectations about language, and this justifiably annoys and upsets people, both with the sheer pitiability of the situation, and the frustrating repititiousness of it all happening over and over and over. So I can understand somewhat the tirades and venting that come about in the course of trying to “correct” this linguistic behavior.

    But then there are the true “grammar nazis”. The kind of people who write full page letters complaining about innocent typos or even just linguistic quirks that defy their personal expectations.

    What’s important to realize about these people is that proper language ISN’T their primary concern. No, their problems lie deeper than that. The sort of person who is so senselessly vitriolic about language is a person who has a need to criticize others in order to feel better about themselves. They crave schadenfreude. They leap at the chance to “correct” others, because it serves to “prove” that they are “better” than others.

    In a word, they are insecure. In a few more words, they suffer from a superiority complex. They are wretched and unhappy people. They lack self satisfaction and feel disempowered.

    And they don’t actually have to target language, specifically. The same sort of person might exhibit the same type of negative behavior in any number of situations. Any complex interactive system is up for grabs. Anything where there are rules that they can use to beat others over the head with. From the world of fashion, to suburban Homeowners Associations, to petty local offices and politics, to specific subcultures and their social mores, and what have you.

    The important element is a setting in which the insecure party can point to a fault in others, no matter how trivial, and then manage to get away with abusing the erring party for their fault. The end goal is to gain power over the other person, to exact an influence over their emotions or thoughts, to cling to a scrap of control in a world which the abuser secretly feels they have little to no control over.

    In a word, bullying.

  13. I haven’t read the source yet, but everything in the example above refers to the ability to read; i.e. basic literacy. I have no problems with that, my issue is with what people write. When people write so poorly that you cannot understand what they are trying to say – that *is* a problem. Minor misspellings are one thing, but when they’re to the point that you can’t even guess the intended word, that’s another. Grammatical issues that either merge or break up clauses are another problem – you no longer tell what modifies what, which can have major consequences to meaning.

    I get messages from my 20-something neighbors all the time. It takes me at least 2-3 times as long just to figure out what they’re saying – if I can at all – and this is all due to horrific misspellings and grammatical problems, not shorthand. It’s a legitimate impediment to communication.

    Some “grammar nazi” is nitpicking and douchey. But much of it is necessary because the fundamental point of language – communication – is being lost.

  14. Calling most of this privilege is inaccurate. These aren’t privilege issues in the usual sense of the word, but issues of lack of education. Dismissing people for bad grammar or poor spelling is a distinct issue from the sort of thing on her checklist. That’s not to say that either of these are good things, but conflating the two issues isn’t the way to address them in any substantial fashion. 

    1. I’m not going to touch the privilege angle of this*, but wealth is the single biggest factor when it comes to what kind of education a young person gets. At least it is in this country.

      *so much for that..

      1. True; yet not the only factor.  My children are educated beyond their financial peers because of my own efforts; my son will tell you I am Gargantua to his Pantagruel, with no small amount of self-pity I might add.

        1. I was an only child. The neighbors had seven children. My mother was a scientist and math savant. Their parents worked in a scrap metal yard and cleaned houses. Which one of us do you think got better grades? Of course, they all probably make more money than me, but that’s a whole other thing.

          1. Shop was mandatory for boys in my school, as home ec was for girls.  I’m allergic to sawdust.  Fortunately, our shop teacher wasn’t an asshole, so he let me do mechanical drawing for the whole class.

    2. …if lack of education isn’t a privilege issue, I’m not sure what could be.  There’s nothing more fundamental, or more glaring in the demographics. 

      That said, your point is well taken – it’s important to distinguish pedantry from access issues.  (Let’s not tangle causes and effects here, either.)

  15. “It’s one thing to point out a typo, it’s another thing to denounce its creator as an enemy of literacy and a bad example who will lead the children of the world to ruin.”

    It’s no more than to say: Proportionality matters.

    Does most grammar correction seem rooted in denunciation to you?

    Is seeing it that way in edge cases a defense mechanism?

  16. Pilkunnussija; Coma Fucker. The kinda person who uses grammar as an excuse to not address legitimate points made by someone and marginalize their point of view. It’s disingenuous; meaning when you invoke grammar as a fucktard invoking godwin’s law you are basically a liar. It’s pretty much the same as arguing with a fundamentalist christian.

  17. I know I’ve been guilty of dismissing people because of their grammar/spelling errors (I’m sure I’ll make several in this post, BTW, thanks to Muphry’s Law)

    You’re fucking with us aren’t you

  18. It’s hard to argue with her position that prescriptive grammarians tend to align rather cozily with what Decent Proper People are doing(or were doing some years ago, prescriptive grammar certainly dislikes poor and/or ethnic types; but also hates innovation); but I do have to wonder where you draw the line between ‘being a grammar nazi’ and ‘establishing and maintaining the communication norms of a given community(online or otherwise)’.

    As she notes, “when people study dialects in an objective, scientific way (which is what cunning linguists actually do), they find that low-prestige dialects, such as African-American Vernacular English or Cockney English, have fully-formed grammar rules of their own that make just as much sense as any others. “(emphasis mine). Yes, the idea that there is True English surrounded by a sea of inchoate babble is nonsense in basically the same sense that the idea of ‘civilization’ surrounded by savages is nonsense. However, it’s nonsense because “True English” and the assorted low-prestige dialects both have rules that speakers and writers are supposed to follow at least reasonably frequently(Just as the ‘savages’ turn out to have societies and culture and laws and stuff just like ‘civilization’ does).

    Given that, you can’t correct someone from a position of some flavor of “Absolute Grammatical Truth”; but you can(and all languages and dialects that do have ‘grammar rules’ arise in part because people do) attempt to enforce adherence to local convention. It is important to remember that you will also be enforcing the unwritten rules of who does and who doesn’t ‘belong’ in the location; but that is also something that essentially all online communities also do.

    Claiming to represent some standard of absolute right while upholding your local community standard is, of course, bullshit; but merely upholding your local community standard because that’s how we do things on my slice of the internet, and if you want to go elsewhere, feel free, seems no different from, say, banning trolls/flamewars, telling off people who complain that you aren’t blogging about the right topics, or disenvowelling racists or randroids or whoever.

  19. Speaking from experience, the majority of items on the check-list you posted above also apply to those of us who are blind. While we may be literate in Braille, printed matter is still a problem.  This is improving somewhat thanks to computers and electronic documents, but signs, menus, paperwork and forms, etc remain unreadable. 

    1. Every minor typo, or simple grammar correction I’ve ever seen in a comments section is nothing but an ad hominem attack, and usually in place of a response to an otherwise good point. Of course, if somebody’s seriously abusing the caps key, or their frequent misspellings unintentionally give words and sentences entirely new meanings, and to comedic effect, then all bets are off. :)

      1. Not so. In some communities, sometimes even BB, the correction can be well-intentioned, and taken as such. I recently saw a post here that mentioned “John Stewart,” someone politely pointed out that it’s “Jon”, and the post was corrected.

        In can happen, but it’s rare.

        1. I’d say that names with a variety of spellings fall outside correcting somebody for “they’re vs. their” or whatever. I think there’s a difference between politely pointing out an error in an *article* vs. being pedantic about somebody in the comments section as well.

    2. If someone points out an error, we just fix it. A fair number of corrections come with a sentence yelling at us to pay for editors. They go to the cornfield.

  20. So how do literate people coming into contact with less literate people help them? How do you tell them “The way you write memos is making you the laughingstock of the office because it’s like reading a grade-school essay” without being privileged dicks about it?

    1. Many people are pretty aware that they can’t write intelligibly. The others will just keep getting fired until they die in the gutter. I’ve read several college papers (one from a journalism student!) that were quite literally unintelligible. I had absolutely no idea what they were writing about.

  21. Sure. If there is a legit lack of understanding due to the way someone wrote something, I often try to restate it and confirm with them that I got their point right. If my way of stating it is clear to everyone, then that person will be more likely to use that way of stating it in the future. Don’t need to “correct” so much as model.

    And of course, I see you are a writer, so I assume that within professional circles there is a higher understanding of precision and discourse, so it is probably more acceptable to outright “correct” a colleague, or at least be specific when you ask, “Is that how you meant to phrase that?”

    1. You don’t know a single intelligent person who just doesn’t give a shit about spelling and grammar?

      Funny, I don’t know a single intelligent person who is so obsessive about spelling and grammar that they feel the need to say or imply grammar or spelling is reflective of some deeper measure of intelligence.

      1.  How about as a measure of care, and hard work, and craft? If I get student lab reports that are poorly written, it tells me a great many things. If this student then comes to me and asks for a rec. letter for medical school or pharm school, and I think back to the lack of attention to detail, the unwillingness to edit, the laziness of not checking for basic formatting, I am not sending them to a place where they are going to be learning how to cut me open and tinker with my ticker. If they can’t follow a Report Format, and figure out where the pesky “Conclusion” goes, I do not trust that person know know were my appendix goes either.

        You’re writing reflects not only your inner mind, but also presents your out face to the world. And some times, you have to tell people they have spinach in their teeth.

  22. Completely disagree with this article. If in a polite and courteous way, someone points out an error in your grammar, the correct response is gratitude. They attempting to make you a better writer. That’s the case, regardless of whether you’re dyslexic or not from the UK or whatever.

    Of course, if they’re a dick about it, that’s something entirely different, and completely covered under the standard rules of internet engagement.

    1. “Completely disagree with this article. If in a polite and courteous way, someone points out an error in your grammar, the correct response is gratitude. They attempting to make you a better writer. ”

      Oh the irony…

      1. There is a difference between typos and accidental omissions and honest god errors. And there is such a thing as context- a post is different than a comment.  I don’t know about you, but if I post something to a blog, I don’t mind when people (nicely) point out an error. (“Hey, you repeated “was” in sentence X”). And if I misused a word, I definitely want to know. And if there’s a sentence that is so mangled as to be incomprehensible, I don’t really mind being told that it’s unclear. It’s all in how you do it. 

          1. I did make a point in there about context, didn’t I? As well as, “it’s all in how you do it”? There’s a pretty obvious difference between point-scoring and helpfulness.

          2. “[H]onest–god” could, I suppose, be read as “the range of values from ‘honest’ to ‘god'”….

          3. You really couldn’t tell I was joking, when I was talking about honest gods vs. lying gods? Well by God then, you need another drink!

    2. So, if I tell these people, that go around pointing out grammatical errors, that they are total assholes then the correct respons should also be gratitude, right? Because obviously they didn’t know it before, and now they do, so they can therefore become better persons.

      1. I don’t think it is asshole-ish of others to politely correct you, and if you don’t wish to improve such a vital part of yourself as a human as the language with which you communicate with others, then I don’t think anyone should respect anything you say anyway.

        1. If you correct my grammar, I’m going to tell you to buy some clothes that actually fit. And for fuck’s sake, have that mole removed.

  23. I am generally unimpressed by the arguments against grammar correction, or standardized spellings, or grammar correction that crosses a line from educative to jerkass, or whatever it is, exactly, the author of the original post is complaining about.  I teach college; many students come into my classroom unable to formulate an argument, structure a paper or essay, or communicate meaningfully in writing.  Many write sentences that are, taken at face value, meaningless or incomprehensible, thanks to nonexistent antecedents, misplaced modifiers, inconsistent tenses, and the like.  When I correct these errors, I am not lording privilege over hard-working members of oppressed groups whose novel patois threatens a hierarchical social structure.  Rather, I am trying to help them learn how to communicate in writing.

    A language must have rules and shared meanings if it is to be meaningful; this applies to the written word as surely as it does to computer programming.  If I were coding a web page and decided not to close off the HTML command to begin boldface text or use a larger font for a headine, and justified that because I was being creative or fighting a hierarchy, my web page would not look the way I wanted it to.  It would not care about my motive, it would simply do what the programming told it to.  No one would accuse someone who told me to change my coding because it was not doing what I wanted it to of being a programming Nazi.

    1. So… if you check in your totally working program and next time you see it I have re-programmed _everything_ because it wasn’t up to my whatever-standards, or done not done in whatever methods I prefer, you wouldn’t accuse me of being a programming Nazi?

      I don’t think the OP was about not having language standards. But people going total apeshit about some very minor grammatical issue, just because they can and apparently have a need to.

    2. No one would accuse someone who told me to change my coding because it was not doing what I wanted it to of being a programming Nazi.

      If your brain can only process binary language, you have a much bigger problem than students with bad grammar.

  24. Just because you can’t write well, or were poor in English class doesn’t mean that you don’t have something to say. Wasting a post on correcting grammar is insulting and does not add to the conversation.
    “I aint’ got no food for my famley” – you – “You mean: I don’t have any food for my family”

    Also, “Grammar Nazi” is a bit extreme of a term and dilutes the meaning of “Nazi”.
    I prefer “Grammar Bully”

  25. No, wait, let me go on. 

    There is no language anywhere more flexible and more open to change than the English one.  Innovation on the part of its variegated users is encouraged, and the language gladly bends to the needs of the many.
    All this great tool asks is that someone show it some respect every now and again.

    I’m not saying go around and be an asshole, obfuscating the argument at hand with petty bullshit.  I am saying that cultural relativists can do a disservice when they condone vandalism.

    1. I am saying that cultural relativists can do a disservice when they condone vandalism.

      If you want to talk about vandalizing language, applying the word vandalism to using non-standard grammar would be a damn fine example.

  26. I don’t think most of the people who comment on youtube, for instance, without any capitalization, punctuation, or sense are doing so because they are underprivileged. It’s because they don’t or won’t care. Privilege here, at least, is a red herring; the real issue is anonymous commenting, where you feel free to flame people about their grammar or usage because you are unseen and unknowable. And that is basically cowardice, not a privilege issue.

    If the writer wishes to see it as privilege to take the care to write well, I suppose that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean I have to see it that way or that most people ever will. By all means, pay no attention to commonly accepted rules of standard written English; just don’t expect anyone to take you seriously when you do. The writer herself seems to be doing fine, so I interpret this as merely a political point of view.

  27. While I agree with most of the points in all three well written pieces, I am still frightened by the idea that accepting imprecise (I didn’t say incorrect, happy now?) language is not only acceptable but morally necessary. 

    Many years ago, a very wise teacher told me, “If I control language better than you can, then I can control you.” 

    I have thought of these words many times during a presidential election in which one candidate’s campaign was based almost entirely on lies and yet he still managed to get 47% of the votes.  This was mostly accomplished through crass cynicism and an Orwellian perversion of language.  Delicious irony notwithstanding, this should be very frightening to anyone who values freedom and democracy.

    1. Many years ago, a very wise teacher told me, “If I control language better than you can, then I can control you.”

      Your teacher needs to work on conditional mood agreement.

      1. Dialogue is privileged. Perhaps this was a quotation translated from an agglutinous language and presented thusly so as to maintain the idiomatic flavor and chewy mouth-feel.

  28. I once did hold it, as our statists do,
    A baseness to write fair, and labour’d much 
    How to forget that learning; but, sir, now 
    It did me yeoman’s service. Wilt thou know 
    The effect of what I wrote?

    Thus Hamlet, one very privileged motherfucker, prince and whatnot. Note the irony in how he thinks writing well is a thing that the poor people who work for him should do, literally, it’s a skill to be associated with the yeoman who would lift heavy shit on a farm.
    Clearly, access to expertise is impacted, often hugely, by privilege, class, and wealth. But are we going to privilege privilege over all other factors when considering literacy, writing as a technology, the role of literacy in new media, horizontal and leveling forces like the Internet, etc.? All because a professional writer told us to using flawless grammar? I hope not.

    1. I believe Hamlet is speaking of legible handwriting, not good grammar, when he says “write fair.”  People of stature didn’t write for themselves; they had scribes.   As for yeoman, there is no suggestion that they could write well (in either sense).  They were known for loyalty and excellence, and Hamlet says his handwriting does him “yeoman’s service” because it is saving his life (and murdering two others).

      1. Look at what Hamlet sez about the commission, its content:

        an exact command,—

        Larded with many several sorts of reasons,
        Importing Denmark’s health, and England’s too,
        With, ho! such bugs and goblins in my life,—
        That, on the supervise, no leisure bated,
        No, not to stay the grinding of the axe,
        My head should be struck off.

        It’s not just a text from Claudius to Engliand, “Sup bro, kill 2 dumbfucks 4 me kthanxbai”: Hamlet’s forced to ape Claudius’s orotund message and its stylistic prolixity–including all the toasts to the king’s health–in order that the message seem convincingly Claudius’s. He’s not just talking about imitating the scribe’s pretty handwriting: he’s talking about composing, on the spot, a suitably kingly message to another royal.
        I get your point about yeoman not writing well, but that’s my point too: Hamlet thinks folks who write well and write pretty are so many serfs. He has a general disdain for language, too, as do so many who use it well: cf. his “unpack my heart with words,” where this time his referent is a prostitute, i.e., those who speak volubly and at length are hos. Man, talk about literacy privilege issues! 

  29. Crap, I failed the literacy privilege test (despite my totally amazing and bodacious command of the English language)!

    These two, specifically:

    I can be sure that my paycheques and bills are accurate because I can read them to check for errors.

    My phone bill is completely incomprehensible.  I could be paying for lemur training in Kalamazoo for all I know.

    I can influence policy decisions that affect me by writing letters and e-mails to my elected officials.

    No matter how many times I write or email “my” elected officials, I have zero influence over policy decisions.  I’ve been trying for decades at this point, I’ve even buttonholed Chris Coons and Joe Biden and talked to them at length… it doesn’t work because they don’t actually care what anyone else thinks.

    I got the rest of them, though.  I’m only slightly underprivileged, linguistically.

  30.  I would actually argue that this line of reasoning – that one shouldn’t defend standard rules of language and if one does one can be equated to the Nazis – itself comes from a deep-seated privilege of which the native English -speaking world seems largely oblivious, which is the ability to use your native language internationally.

    The fact of the matter is that for a foreigner with imperfect English language skills, written standardised language is a lot easier to understand than informal, colloquial “transcribed spoken language”.

    Of course there often comes a point beyond which even standard language is too complicated for a given person’s skill level, but things like non-standard spelling and confused grammar are real impediments to understanding much sooner than the complexity of the constructs and the vocabulary becomes an issue, and I would argue that they are a much greater problem for a person who approaches English from the viewpoint of another language. Things like homonyms are vastly more difficult for someone whose approach to English has been much more literal than spoken. Getting from “summer salt” to “somersault” or from “would of” to “would have” is not a trivial leap for someone who primarily considers the words as groupings of letters, not phonemes.

    Paying attention to grammar and spelling is important, because having common rules creates a common playing filed not only for all the different native Englishes but also to people who are not native speakers. It means that there is something near-universal that can be taught. It is in the nature of both written language and “standard variant” that they aren’t strictly speaking natural to anyone, but the distance from local vernacular to the standard is a great deal shorter than the distance from any other language.

    There is a vast number of people who have gone to all the time and trouble to learn your language to communicate with you, so that you don’t have to bother to learn a foreign language. The least the English speaking world could do is to at least try to uphold some standards so that that playing field is at least a bit more level for those of us who are ESL or EFL speakers. We are taught a standard English, we do not – indeed often simply cannot – learn some local vernacular. Most foreign language learners are taught some version of either RP or GA depending on the school and the teacher, and that is the toolkit one must use to decipher what is being said or written.

    Being able to understand non-standard variants without difficulty is a huge privilege in itself, and in defending and excusing such writing, and essentially condemning all criticism, one is basically deciding to privilege sub-literate natives over ESL/EFL speakers to a massive extent. Everyone is of course free to do whatever one wishes, and pick which group one considers more important, but thinking that not enforcing certain linguistic standards means that one is being more open minded and not acting on a privilege is emphatically not the case.

  31. French? Really? I can only assume the “official academy” exists in France. I bet Quebequoi French and Acadian French might have something to say about that. Not to mention all the other island locals where French in the primary language.

    1. They are recognized as distinct dialects.  The French academy really does make the ultimate decisions as to what constitutes correct Parisian French.  Your scoffing makes you look a little out of it.

    1. Exactly. I am completely sympathetic to the notion that those with “nonstandard” dialects are at a disadvantage, but to say that those who take the care to learn to use the dominant language correctly are privileged is perhaps just a little too PC for my taste.

      1. …to say that those who take the care to learn to use the dominant language correctly are privileged is perhaps just a little too PC…

        This sounds fine until you start to wonder why one version is considered “dominant.”

  32. This is an odd thread–lots of intelligent and thoughtful people arguing about matters that I thought were (intelligently and thoughtfully) settled forty-odd years ago when I received my (pretty basic) linguistics training and later when I taught some of the fundamentals to college freshmen. Among the standard topics in that course: the primacy of speech, the notion of speech communities, the Indo-European language family tree (and the assumptions behind that model), the histories of English and of the teaching of grammar (along with the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive grammars), the nature and history of lexicography, the nature of geographical and social dialects and of what we innocently called levels of usage. As I read this comment thread, there aren’t many issues that weren’t addressed by that long-ago freshman course. (And several posts suggest that this kind of background has not vanished from the educational system.)

    At the risk of being identified as some kind of oppressive or clueless privileged person, I have to say that “privilege” in its current sociopolitical sense seems less relevant here than, as someone put it way upthread, not being a dick. Grammar nazis or bullies or whatever are bullies or assholes first, and language is just the arena in which they have chosen to act out their natures.

    Brad Hicks suggests that current notions of correctness–that is, of giving some practices privileged status–are an invention of the industrial age. I suggest that any sufficiently literate culture will develop similar protocols and hierarchies. I’m pretty sure that ancient Rome generated texts filled with content that readers were not already familiar with. The connection of language with song is an interesting and useful one (especially in getting the sound of a newly-learned language right), and pitch is one of the three dimensions of spoken English I was taught (stress and juncture being the other two), but English is not a tonal language, at least not in the way that, say, Chinese is.

    I’m not familiar with the Chomsky analysis, but I can safely assert that the “dialect of English that is ONLY taught in Ivy League schools” is widely available in other venues. I don’t have an Ivy League education, and I must have learned it somewhere. And yes, of course, absolutely, language can be and often is part of class or caste or political-elite system–but it doesn’t help to overstate the case.

    And in all this, as a former English teacher and spouse of one who is still working in the field, I wonder what the role of the teacher might be in a world where ideas of standard usage/spelling/grammar/punctuation are so quickly associated with bullying and unearned social privilege.

  33. When I first saw this on another site, I wondered how soon Cory would latch onto it. It has that hip, old-timey thing going for it. Like the spoken-language version of washing with rocks.

    This thing strikes me a bit like arguments made by the outer-fringe libertarians who claim they do not have to abide by any laws they, themselves, had not directly voted on. That and just about any anti-intellectual argument belched-out on talk radio.

    So, yay, anarchy! Until the moment you are unable to decipher the uniquely-written instructions for disarming the bomb.

    1. I’m sorry, how do you get “yay, anarchy!” out of this?

      I’m looking at it and trying to see it but all I can find is “don’t be a dick”.

    1. Then I’ll oblige:

      Scots is a perfect example of a language which has pretty much been killed by the deliberate use of English as a bellwether of status.

      Props go to the same upper-middle classes, those that loved the Act of Union, for ensuring that all our compulsory education was in Queen’s English and that ‘yi’d be battered and call’t a teuchter fir spikin’ in a sleekit halftongue nir any tutor’ and for timing the introduction of that change with the highland clearances, which swept up and discarded demographics, families too, with callous abandon.

      As late as the nineties, attempts to recognise Gaelic or Scots were quashed since, ‘the Scottish Office has generally contended that this is unnecessary as there has never been specific legal discrimination against the languages like there has been against Welsh in the 1536 Act of Incorporation.’

      There has been progress since then, but many of us, like practically everyone north of Watford, codeswitch depending on the people we’re talking to.

  34. It’s always surprised me that people who do computer programming and spend most of their time working with grammar, syntax, and semantics in computer languages can’t do the same in English, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve had to get used to it.  Different people process information differently, and that applies here too. 

    On the other hand, most typed communication these days is done on computers, and most text input to computers is done using tools that will flag spelling and grammar mistakes, and while they’re hardly foolproof, they at least do flag most of the most common mistakes.  So even if you don’t have spelling and grammar as some of your own superpowers, you should be able to write mostly correctly with some help from your friends.

  35. As a college professor, I’m all for grammar nazis. I read too much bad writing. Besides someone has to impose certain levels of “minimum standards” –if only for comprehensibility across contexts.

    But, agreed that people don’t have to be dicks about it. 

    And, all people should have access to the education (and life circumstances) required to achieve full literacy. The 21st century requires it.

    1.  Or using text-speak on papers or exams. I did get to write “WTF? I SPEAK ENGLISH, NOT BINGO”

    1. This is one of the best parodies of political correctness I’ve ever seen.

      That’s one of the most ironic attempts to defend grammar pedantry that I’ve ever seen.

  36. Glasses wow….. me too….

    Did you go to school hungry? Get beaten or sexually abused at home? Did you fear being shot or beaten while walking to school? Have to do homework in an unheated apartment designed for 4 people but housing 12?

  37.  The internet is full of anonymous little Horatio Algers and self made wealthy small business men. If only you were all real we’d be the most dynamic country on Earth……..

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