Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language

by Heather

Recommended Read

Ghomeshi, Jila. Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2010. [ISBN-13: 978-1894037-44-0]

If English is going to hell in a hand basket, how is it that there are so many rigidly prescriptive grammar guides in bookstores? I sometimes wonder about this when hunting between such guides for books like this one. In Grammar Matters Jila Ghomeshi points out that this public appetite for grammar guides, word-of-the-day email subscriptions, punctuation-related Facebook groups, and so forth actually demonstrates that the general population has a rather strong interest in language and in getting it “right.” And this appetite belies the idea that a general ignorance and disregard for correct language use somehow has the entire English language on the ropes.

Ghomeshi reminds us that warnings about the imminent collapse of English into babel have been with us for hundreds of years (pretty well dating to the invention of the first guides to English usage) and that the apocolypse doesn’t seem to have struck yet. To be sure, the language has changed in those hundreds of years—languages change as time ticks past, just as they change from one place to another, one job to another, one neighbourhood to another, and one playground to another. We tailor our language to our needs, and we each draw on several varieties of a language as we wander from one place and time to another.

I have one English I use with friends, another I use at work, one I use with small children, and another I use to write to my member of parliament. One of these is not better than the others—each has its moments when it’s the best one to use. Yet as Ghomeshi writes, “While we don’t freely express judgements about people based on their race or socio-economic status, we not only feel free to do so on the basis of the way they sound, but feel smug while doing so.”

This practice seems to stem in large part from two erroneous assumptions: (1) that standard English is innately better than other forms like AAVE or txting and (2) that those who use other forms do so because they don’t know how to use standard English. It’s my suspicion that this disapproval of nonstandard forms is oftentimes due to the declaimer’s discomfort at their own inability to understand other Englishes.

Does this mean, then, that there should be no standards whatsoever? Not at all. Ghomeshi recognizes the value of a standard dialect of English, offering as it does a broadly shared form of the language that, in its breadth, has the potential to be easily understood by all sorts of English speakers in all sorts of places. And she recognizes, too, that not having a knowledge of standard English can be, fair or not, a real barrier to social and economic opportunities.

Okay, but does this mean we can’t form opinions about our own language preferences? Again, no. Ghomeshi simply reminds us that that is all they are—preferences and not some intrinsically superior form of the language. The perennial charges that some forms of language use are lazier, less elegant, or unclear are all handily dismissed by Ghomeshi with examples galore of how these charges just don’t hold up to scrutiny. As she writes, “When someone declares another person’s language to be unclear and imprecise, what is implicit is that it is unclear and imprecise to them. Such statements obscure the shared responsibility we have for achieving understanding.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather May 25, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Thanks, Stephanie! A few times when I was working as a proofreader or copy editor (and therefore being a professional grammatical fussbudget), I was asked how I could claim any allegiance to descriptive linguistics. Ghomeshi clarifies the difference between prescriptivism and copyediting perfectly, explaining that in-house style guides are authoritative yet non-prescriptive guides to language use because “they are clear on what the rules are and how they should be followed without any insinuation that they are the […] only ones that are good and correct.”

I also found this short CBC interview with Jila Ghomeshi after I wrote this post & I think you’d enjoy it: http://www.cbc.ca/weekendmorning/episode/2011/01/09/grammar-matters/

Stephanie May 24, 2011 at 3:39 pm

This reminds me of a discussion I had with an editor when I was an intern. I was checking a proofreader’s markup because she had been…vigilant about grammar. The book was fiction. The editor told me that the author knew the rules and therefore had the authority to bend or break them. We tend to assume right away that people don’t know the rules if they don’t follow them, when more often they are just tailoring their language to be appropriate to a particular situation.
Great post!

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