I can’t tell you the number of times someone has apologized for ending a sentence with a preposition in my presence, or preemptively said in a text message that they, “don’t know how to use commas” so they’re, “sorry in advance.” These anticipatory self-deprecations come not just from acquaintances, but from friends and family members that I have known my whole life.
Interestingly, I’ve never felt the urge to apologize to my biologist friend for not remembering the parts of a cell, nor have I ever stopped a nurse mid-shot to bashfully remind him or her that I cannot administer this vaccine to myself.
There is a perception that having an English degree suddenly gives me the right to forever and always be judging another individual’s command of the language whether I am in an academic context or not. I am not sure why this is—perhaps, after being teased about never finding a job, it’s society’s way of throwing English majors a bone. Even so, I would like to formally and publicly return said bone by way of this blog post. The unbridled ability to criticize is not a right that anyone should have.
I’ve heard the argument that people think that they’re just helpin’ you out by correcting your grammar so you don’t “embarrass” yourself later. It’s pretty bold to assume an English degree gives you the power to shield others from professional embarrassment, but I can agree that a little nudge that “dossier” is pronounced “dos-see-aye” and not “dos-e-ur” could be helpful before an important meeting (#forevergrateful to the person who told me that many moons ago).
What ISN’T helpful and what I DON’T understand, is when someone makes you feel the full force of the three literature classes they took in college by offering an ever-so-shady, “sweetie, it’s ‘you’re’ not ‘your’” on someone’s social media post. All you are doing in that situation is not-so-subtly trying to convince someone that you’re more educated than they are. It is not cute.
The purpose of language is to communicate. If you understand the message a person is trying to convey, there is no need for clarification/correction. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. They have successfully completed the task of language, and require no further critique.
If you’re hell-bent on touting your knowledge of technically correct spelling, there’s a good chance that you felt underestimated at some point in your academic career, and are now wanting everyone to know that you’ve got it totally together now. I know that feeling, because I feel it all the time—even though I work in a writing center, I am always afraid a student in the middle of the session is going to get up and shout, “I heard you got a D in reading in the 5th grade!” or something of that nature (that’s true, by the way, and if someone called it out on that level I would probs start crying).
Intellectual insecurity is something everyone experiences, but I find it so ironic that people take that hurt and use it to perpetuate the same feeling of inadequacy in someone else. Seems—dare I say it—emotionally uneducated.
Studying English does, in fact, teach you what a comma splice is, but on a much broader and more important scale, the study of English (or any language, for that matter) teaches you that language is fluid and ever-changing, and is inexorably linked to context.
Context: Like when a student asks the difference between definite and indefinite articles (tell ‘em!)
Context: Like when you say “y’all” amongst a group of friends, and an acquaintance tells you, “it’s actually ‘you all’” (NOPE).
Language is meant to constantly be enriched by new forms of expression (by the way, if you want to talk about GIFs as language, I am here for it 25/8). To attempt to enforce the already-shaky rules of Standard American English outside of a test in your English class doesn’t allow language the space that it needs to breathe and evolve.
Before some of you get angry because I’m calling it out so hard, I am certainly not saying that grammar shouldn’t be taught—of course we need some sort of structure for our language to make sense—I am saying that grammar should be taught as a tool for communication rather than an exacting, unforgiving set of rules (and once there are enough exceptions—are they even rules? I’m looking at you, “i” before “e” except after “c” except NEIGHBOR? BEIGE!?…wtf).
I have seen too many people use grammar as a wall to keep the exact sort of person who SHOULD be in academia, out of academia by shaming them into believing they can’t master it all. If you do this in my presence, I will use the internet, I will find your Xanga or your MySpace and I will take screen shots with big red circles drawn around all the spelling and punctuation errors, and I will show it to the person you just made feel like crap.
TL;DR: Grammar policing is the intellectual equivalent of sending a stranger a dick pic. No one asked for it, the recipient is not pleased—but the sender, for some insane reason, feels great about themselves. In both situations, the perpetrator is compensating for something that can never be acquired through making other people uncomfortable.