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

November 26, 2012

My name is Chandra, and I am a recovering grammar snob.

There was a time that it gave me a blush of pride to be referred to as “the Spelling Sergeant” or “the Punctuation Police”. I would gleefully tear a syntactic strip out of anybody who fell victim to the perils of poor parallelism or the menace of misplaced modifiers. I railed against atrostrophes and took a red pen to signs posted in staff rooms, bulletin boards and public washrooms. I was, to put it bluntly, really, really annoying.

policecat

Four years ago, I was hired in a program that helps disadvantaged adults acquire fundamental literacy skills. To say that it has been an eye-opening experience deeply understates its impact; in fact, it has been mind-opening. And one of the ideas that has fallen into my newly-open mind is that being pedantic about the language skills of perfect strangers is kind of an asshole move.

It’s a tough habit to break, though. Prescriptivists are vocal and ubiquitous, and many of them have found their way into the public education system. Writing can be a powerful form of communication, and grammar snobs tend to be good at it, so the result is that their sneering condescensions become canonized – and cannon-ized – as easy shots against opponents in intellectual debate. The advent of the world wide web, naturally, has elevated this sport to Olympic proportions.

It’s one thing to take an erudite journalist or grandiloquent blogger (don’t know any of those, myself) down a notch, although there are valid arguments against even this; grammatical exactitude can suffocate creativity and clarity, and many prescriptive rules were totally fabricated by Latin-centric snobs. But when a poor newbie on a discussion forum introduces himself with “hi im jonny n i like wachin x facter” and gets linguistically skewered by someone because they personally hate the pants off of Simon Cowell – well, that is a different kind of problem.

Here are some of the things we don’t know about Jonny. Jonny might be dyslexic. He might have spent his entire childhood being shamed and belittled by his teachers and classmates because his brain works differently from theirs. He might come from an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional home, where focusing on his English studies comes a distant second to keeping the pieces of his body and spirit together. He might be living on food stamps and lacking the necessary fuel to fire his brain’s higher-level synapses. He might avoid school altogether because his head has been knocked into lockers one too many times. He might have a brain injury. He might have spent most of the third grade hooked up to life support in the Children’s Hospital while his classmates were getting hooked on phonics. He might be a refugee from a country whose native language has an entirely different writing system, or no writing system at all. He might be surviving any combination of these circumstances, and more. At this point, we can’t even be certain that Jonny is spelling his own name correctly – and this is a tragedy, not a joke.

It might turn out through subsequent forum posts that Jonny is actually a bit of a dick. Maybe he expresses obnoxious opinions in childish ways and picks fights with anyone who disagrees. In this scenario, it’s very tempting to crap on his unusual orthography and lack of punctuation. It seems like such an easy way to shut him down. He’s a jerk and he deserves it, right? But I have come to realize that there are problems with this ignoble approach as well.

For one thing, the idea that there is only one right way of doing English – and everyone else is doing it wrong – is inherently flawed. And by “flawed” I mean illogical, elitist and even oppressive. Judgements about what counts as “right”, “good” and “correct” in writing and grammar always – ALWAYS – align with characteristics of the dialects spoken by privileged, mostly wealthy, mostly white people. We make these judgements based on learned biases, as well as a certain emotional attachment to our own way of doing things. But 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. They are perfectly valid and functional forms of communication used by millions of people. The only difference is that they don’t have people running around telling everyone else to do it their way.

So if I crap on Jonny’s spelling, I’m either reinforcing an oppressive status quo, or picking on a person with a disability, or both. And taking part in these kinds of insults, even when they’re directed at an Internet troll, encourages other people to participate in this kind of shaming. It’s frankly also pretty ineffective as a debate tactic. I’m not going to change Jonny’s mind, nor help him improve his writing abilities, by making fun of him. He may be a jerk because he’s never learned how to express himself in a healthy way, and I’m not doing much to help him. And reducing my arguments to the level of ad homonym attacks debases my own credibility – because if I have a valid point to make, I should be able to make it without resorting to pettiness. Furthermore, it is guaranteed that somewhere out there on the Interwebs, there is someone I agree with whose reasoned arguments are disparaged, dismissed or ignored because they come wrapped in a package of nonstandard language.

This is no trifling issue, either. I like to shock the new tutors I train by quoting statistics from the International Adult Literacy Survey. I ask them to estimate, in a developed country like Canada or the U.S., what percentage of the population has literacy skills below the very basic level needed to function well in our society. People usually guess ten percent, fifteen percent, maybe as much as twenty-five. Then I pull out the sad, stunning facts: nearly half of all North American adults cannot cope with complex written material of the sort that the other half of us take completely for granted. HALF, you guys. This should be considered a national crisis. Not fodder for sport.

I hope that, at this point, I shouldn’t need to spend too much time debunking the common myth that literacy ability is tied to intelligence (it unequivocally isn’t). But an even more difficult myth to dispel is the equally common opinion that bad English is the result of laziness. I am ashamed to think that I probably perpetuated this idea myself, before I took the time to critically examine it. So let’s do that. I mean, laziness? Really?! Because it’s sooooooo easy to coast through life without being able to read and write well, yeah? Let’s unpack this a bit further.

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.
  • I can accept invitations to weddings, showers and other special events without anxiety because I know I will be able to write a legible card for my hosts.
  • I can be informed about important events and news in my community, state/province and nation because I can read the local and national newspapers.
  • I can make my voice heard on important topics in my community by writing a letter to the editor of my local newspaper.
  • I can influence policy decisions that affect me by writing letters and e-mails to my elected officials.
  • I can help my children with their homework. I can read letters and flyers sent home by my children’s teachers and school administrators.
  • I can attend parent-teacher interviews without fearing that my literacy level will be exposed to teachers or other parents.
  • People do not make inaccurate negative judgements about my intelligence, competence and work ethic based on my reading and writing abilities.
  • My freedom to explore career options that interest me is not limited by my literacy level.
  • I have never had to turn down an offer of job promotion because I was afraid the literacy demands would be too high.
  • I can work safely and effectively at my job because I understand all of the posted signs, warnings and notifications.
  • I can improve my employability and socioeconomic standing by enrolling in certification courses or postsecondary programs that require strong literacy skills.
  • I can explore ideas I’m interested in by reading articles and books about them.
  • I can keep personal records of ideas, dreams, thoughts, and important events in my life without needing to rely on my memory, by keeping a journal.
  • I can stay in contact with loved ones who live far away through letters and e-mails.

Sure, life must be a cinch when you don’t have these options available to you. Why bother to learn to read and write well when you can just, I don’t know, press picture-buttons on a McDonald’s cash register for seven bucks an hour until you’re sixty and your back gives out? Who has time for books when you’re busy scrounging for loose coins under your beat-up sofa cushions in your shitty basement apartment so you can buy your kid a bag of chips for lunch? What a cakewalk!

Do I sound angry? That’s because I am. I’m angry that linguistic elitism is so deeply embedded in our social discourse with so little critical analysis. I’m angry that it took me four years of being slapped in the face with the daily realities of poor literacy skills before I finally relinquished my own prescriptive bayonet. As a member of a marginalized group myself, I am hyperconscious of other, more well-recognized types of privilege – male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege. I want to be vigilant about the ways that I might be contributing to the marginalization of others. And the more I understand about my fellow human beings, the more I recognize the importance of taking the time to stop, listen, and learn about their struggles before unleashing my own careless judgements. I have by no means become a saint in this regard – I still have redhead moments where I snark before I think – but I am committed to finding better ways to engage with people whose opinions, experiences and means of expression are different from mine.

UPDATE: If there is something you disagree with, please do the following:

  • read this and this; and
  • read the comments that have already been posted

…because I have probably already addressed it in one of those places.

UPDATE II: I have closed comments for the time being because this post is getting waaaaaaay more attention than I ever expected, and since I’m only one (fairly busy) person I’m finding it hard to keep on top of things. Thanks for your understanding.

145 Comments
  1. eggplant permalink
    November 26, 2012 10:07 pm

    I’m angry too! And I have to say, holy smokes, this is really well written! Not only because of your wondrous vocabulary and way with words but also your reflection on an under-acknowledged cause of marginalization. It’s one I’ve been somewhat aware of, in part because friends and co-workers of mine who have difficulty following common english grammar rules commonly have english as a second language – something that could fit into your list about Johnny and the things we just don’t know about people. But this blog post goes so much deeper, it’s phenomenal. So… you’re going to get this into a few magazines to apprise more people of the matter?

    • November 27, 2012 7:59 am

      “So… you’re going to get this into a few magazines to apprise more people of the matter?”
      Well, I tried… lately this blog is my repository of stuff I didn’t get published elsewhere. :) Thanks for your comments!

      • November 28, 2012 2:06 am

        I see value in your criticism of those that viciously criticize, but I disagree slightly with some of your concepts on sympathy, and strongly with your concepts on alternative grammatical systems. I come from the top school district in America and a high school specifically that consistently ranks top 150 in the nation (said rankings include private and preparatory schools although my education was public). My father is one of the best in the industry for editing several-hundred-page government documents of technical jargon; my third grade papers were edited with the same fine toothed comb as contracts for tanks to be built in mass. I won’t go so far as to say that my grammar is perfect, far from it, not to mention I was a lackluster student, even if a stellar test taker. And from there I went on to spend 4 months in a city jail in a rural city in the south, needless to say I was surrounded by a considerable amount of illiteracy. I had multiple pod-mates ask me to read to them their court documents and letters from loved ones they couldn’t even admit to that they were illiterate. I often fought tears as I read letters to cell mates from their girl friends, wives and children.During my first 2 months I also tutored 6 inmates to their GED’s, each having attempted the test previously and having failed, two of them in particular, several times each (few things in life have given me the satisfaction of my 26 year old jail friend and father of 4, smiling ear to ear the day he got his results and had passed after 8 failed attempts, his thanks make me tear up even as I type this). So trust me when I say that I agree completely with you that the state of literacy in this country is shameful, not to mention deeply saddening. I need to also draw from jail to make clear why I disagree with your assertion that alternate grammatical systems are valid in English. Without a doubt there is a level of effective communication amongst those from a common dialectic culture, however, language is supposed to be a unifying quality of a culture and society, and when concepts about this unifying force differ, its unifying abilities are marginalized if not destroyed. I would like to live in a utopian world where people can possess and utilize whatever brand of language they embrace, but the fact of the matter is that any divergence in use of language within a society can only cause chaos. The “inner city” community I was largely exposed to in jail used certain vernacular to different meanings than I had ever been exposed to, One example would be the term “strapped” (referring to money), which I had come to know as “strapped for cash” meaning low on spendable money. In jail I learned that the inner city community had come to use this term to mean literally the exact opposite. This created a conversation that went like this:
        Cory: ‘ey, you strapped aint chu? (said with apparent sarcasm)
        Me: No, I’m indigent. (common language in jail for those who haven’t broken even on jail fees allowing them to purchase snacks from “canteen”)
        Cory: Yea.
        Me: Yea what?
        Cory: Yea, that’s what I was sayin.
        Me: Oh, you sounded sarcastic.
        Cory: I was…
        This is where differentiation in language usage becomes a problem, it breaks down the very basic purpose of language, effective communication.
        Furthermore I take issue with the concept that the “white American”, “affluent” use of language is wrong to call “right”. It is right; and you’re right about the fact that cultural vernaculars lack any kind of policing or an edict on how they are to be properly used, but there in lies the problem. Effective communication and thus use of language relies on a single agreed upon set of linguistic rules that tells us if we are getting across the concepts intended.
        To be honest I’m three beers in and losing my train of thought, so:
        In summation, you are absolutely right without any shadow of a doubt that literacy amongst adults is no laughing matter. And you are absolutely right that being a grammar nazi (pardon my refusal to capitalize nazi on principal [a proper noun? I think not, there's nothing "proper" about what the term nazi references]) is a useless pursuit of douche baggery, but I cannot agree that “ebonics” and the common language amongst “red necks” is its own “valid” form of language. Perhaps within the confines of a cultural group it may be, but when the individual members of that cultural group need to communicate outside of that group, they must be able to understand and utilize the tools of correct common English. After all, it sounds to me like that’s what you teach, and it is clearly what you used to get across your point, shouldn’t everyone have that freedom, the true freedom of speech.

      • November 28, 2012 2:11 pm

        Hi Greg – I will post my response below, since this blog interface seems not to cope well with replies-to-replies.

  2. November 26, 2012 11:57 pm

    Hey Chandra. This is a great point and I mostly agree with everything. Also, “ad homonym” is hi-larious. I will steal it from you. (Exceptions to agreeing with everything: it’s perfectly consistent to be a descriptivist and correct individuals’ grammar; I don’t think the “functionally illiterate” and the bane of internet grammar nazis are the same group).

    So here’s my question: say there’s someone who has “bad grammar”. What do I do? As you point out, mockery usually isn’t a good option to use on strangers where you don’t know how they’ll take it. The condescension of “here, let enlightened me help benighted you become better” is worse (at least, it strongly irritates me personally to be subjected to it, to a much greater extent than mockery would). The thing is, I don’t think non-action is correct. So,… as someone who works in adult literacy, you prolly can help me out in this regard?

    As you say, literacy and some kind of “innate intelligence” are prolly not connected. But to a great extent what we think of as intelligence in day-to-day life IS, or at least is predicated upon literacy to some extent. (I’m talking about the things you list in your literacy checklist). So I wanna say that when someone is functionally illiterate, this isn’t just not okay on a societal level. It’s also not okay for that person specifically.

    Typing this in two sweaters, a winter coat and a toque in sunny Seattle,
    Alex/Marm

    • November 27, 2012 7:57 am

      Hi Alex! You bring up some very good points, and I agree with the things you say you disagree about (so I guess I disagree that you disagree?). I’ve had a couple of e-mails/messages with similar comments, so I’m going to write a follow-up post that addresses some of these issues.

      • Shane permalink
        November 29, 2012 9:51 am

        It seems racism and dismissing one’s dialect go hand in hand…. and language will naturally continue to evolve with time.

        I particularly enjoyed the link to prescriptivism that you shared. It argued eloquently that needing “useful distinctions” in language is not prescriptivism. Sometimes debates hinge around using language in ways that eliminate “useful distinctions,” for example a group that uses the words socialism, communism and fascism interchangeably to refer to some fuzzy subjective notion of dystopia, or groups that employ victim-blaming language. Ironically, groups of people who use those words in such ways do seem to use them consistently, and they do have a hand in shaping public policy, language in the end affects us all. Language evolves but it’s interesting to me how groups (religious and political) redefine language, essentially building their own lingo using common words that within their own group carry specific meanings and or eliminate other meanings.

        On the flip side, we can attempt to reclaim abusive words (eg queer, even though in my experience, homophobic groups still frequently use this word as a pejorative).

        To carry the previous post further, our very concepts of privilege and social hierarchy are modelled in language. Much like the article mentioning the need for clarity in medical jargon, I find prescriptivism very useful on some occasions. As a method of cultural dominance, stigmatization of issues like dyslexia, and symptom of racism, certainly not. It’s important to remember the cultural origins of our language, and that English is widespread due to imperialism.

        Anyway thanks for the article. I always find it saddening when people I know who are dyslexic are belittled. It’s also saddening that dialects and people who use them are so frequently reduced in demeaning ways, when dialects add so much colour and variety of experience to language and to life.

    • December 6, 2012 5:05 pm

      Marcus Aurelius gives interesting advice about this:

      “From Alexander the Grammarian, [I learned] not to be captious; nor in a carping spirit find fault with those who import into their conversation any expression which is barbarous or ungrammatical or mispronounced, but tactfully to bring in the very expression, that ought to have been used, by way of answer, or as it were in joint support of the assertion, or as a joint consideration of the thing itself and not of the language, or by some such graceful reminder.” – Meditations I. 10, trans. C. R. Haines

  3. Ross G permalink
    November 27, 2012 8:42 am

    Great post, Chandra! The literacy facts were shocking to me. You should check out Josef Fruehwald’s blog, where he occasionally talks bout similar issues from a linguist’s perspective, such as this post from last year: http://val-systems.blogspot.ca/2011/12/i-dont-think-its-linguists-fault.html

    • November 28, 2012 2:13 pm

      Thanks for the link – that’s a great article, and I wish I’d seen it sooner!

  4. November 28, 2012 2:12 pm

    In response to Greg Shmuel Selz above: Thanks for your comments. I think perhaps we are arguing two slightly different things here. When I say that other dialects of English are valid (which is not simply “my assertion”, but rather that of professional linguistic experts), what I mean is that when low-prestige dialects are studied in an objective, scientific way, it becomes clear that they possess systematic, logical grammar rules that serve the primary purpose of any language (to communicate ideas) just as effectively as high-prestige dialects do. Notions about which dialects are “right”, “wrong”, “good” or “bad” are purely subjective opinions that have nothing to do with the inherent form or function of the dialect itself, and everything to do with social politics and history. However, as an English teacher, I am of course fully aware of the necessity to teach the high-prestige dialect to my students, and this is something I plan to address in a follow-up post.

    Regarding these statements: “Any divergence in use of language within a society can only cause chaos. […]This is where differentiation in language usage becomes a problem, it breaks down the very basic purpose of language, effective communication” – I must disagree. Certainly divergence in language can cause confusion, but human societies have coped for millennia with the co-existence of varied languages and dialects without dissolving into chaos. Switzerland, as an example, gets by quite nicely with four official languages. The example you supply around the term “strapped” shows a scenario where some confusion, and perhaps frustration, has taken place due to a misunderstanding – but it is hardly a scene of chaotic catastrophe. Similar kinds of confusion and misunderstanding can take place even when two people are speaking exactly the same dialect.

    In any case, it’s futile to inveigh against the proliferation of language variants, given that this is a process as natural to language evolution as the variation in species is to biological evolution. Speakers of Classical Latin put forth many of the same arguments to rail against variations in their language that they saw as vulgar and debased – and these low-prestige dialects have since evolved into modern French, Italian and Spanish.

    “Effective communication and thus use of language relies on a single agreed upon set of linguistic rules that tells us if we are getting across the concepts intended.” – This statement is true, but I think you are understanding the idea of “agreed-upon linguistic rules” differently than I do. These “rules” arise naturally in language, and are “agreed-upon” in the sense that speakers of the same dialect understand the rules and have an expectation that their interlocutors will understand them as well. They are not “rules” in the sense of edicts written out and enforced by some governing body. In fact, even in cases where such a governing body exists (such as the Académie Française), their “enforcements” have very little effect on the way people actually use language, and do not slow the evolution or variation of dialects at all.

    • December 6, 2012 7:41 pm

      “In any case, it’s futile to inveigh against the proliferation of language variants, given that this is a process as natural to language evolution as the variation in species is to biological evolution. Speakers of Classical Latin put forth many of the same arguments to rail against variations in their language that they saw as vulgar and debased – and these low-prestige dialects have since evolved into modern French, Italian and Spanish.”

      Why does that mean their efforts were futile? They could have succeeded. Indeed, Latin later underwent the most successful language purification of all time. The Renaissance humanists’ judgement of Medieval Latin as “Gothic” and error-ridden has won universal acceptance, and every secular student of Latin today is taught to write and pronounce it as if they were denouncing Catiline in the Temple of Jupiter.

      But if Latin doesn’t count because it’s “dead,” consider the case of Icelandic: in the 1750s, Eggert Ólafsson deplored the number of loanwords in the Icelandic language and called upon his countrymen to preserve the language of their forefathers. Since then, his ideas have taken hold completely, with everybody in Iceland agreeing on the need to preserve the purity of their language. Loanwords have been systematically purged and replaced with coinages from Old Norse roots or obsolete words in extended senses, and “ultra-purists” continue to promote native Icelandic alternatives to the few that remain. (I’m told a popular radio game show presents contestants with neologisms and challenges them to guess the meaning.) The fruit of this effort? Texts written 800 years ago or more are still intelligible to modern speakers, and everyone reads them in school.

      Is the English language some virulent microbial strain whose evolutionary path we just have to accept? Or can its course be turned by the agitation of scholars and journalists?

      • December 7, 2012 10:01 am

        Icelandic is spoken by about 320 000 people in a completely isolated country. The motivation to preserve it is stronger, given its small population of speakers and its relatively low status amongst European languages (it is not used as a lingua franca, or in any legal/judicial/religious/official contexts outside of Iceland, as far as I’m aware). Additionally, the capacity to preserve it is stronger, also due to its small population (fewer naturally-arising dialects) and isolation (less intrusion from competing languages).

        English, on the other hand, is spoken by 1.5 – 2 billion people on every continent on the planet, and comes into regular contact with nearly every other language spoken. Certainly, there may be isolated examples of spelling or grammar forms that are successfully preserved due to campaigning by purists – but these examples are like tiny rivulets dammed up at the edges of a flood.

      • Jeffry house permalink
        December 10, 2012 1:41 pm

        There are (at least) two separate types of language-reform movement. In one, literacy is assisted by trying to make the spelling conform to the way a word is pronounced. In Spain, Andres Bello tried to regularize spelling, since the same phrase could be spelled up to ten different ways, which hindred people in learning to read. A second language reform, like the Icelandic one, or the Norwegian one it is based upon, try to exclude so called foreign words from use. This usually had a racial or ethic-purity underpinning and was used by nationalist movements to create self-esteem as well as rejection of foreign ways.

  5. November 29, 2012 9:55 am

    I really appreciate this post. Literary elitism doesn’t just privilege people in terms of communication, but also knowledge. My studies have me wading through some pretty dense theory, and the irony is that this literature on anti-oppressive theory and de-colonization, etc, is accessible only to those who can afford to access high-high level education. Isn’t it ironic that through the language used by these academics, the process of privilege-dominance is reproduced? That’s why I soooo appreciate the works of scholars like bell hooks who makes academic discourse accessible!

  6. Nastassja Riemermann permalink
    November 29, 2012 10:12 am

    Thank you for your post. I’m definitely one of the grammar elitists that you describe, and I’m sure it’s never gained me any brownie points. I also tend to assume it’s laziness, especially in the internet age when you can easily Google a grammar topic you don’t know (I’m *constantly* having to re-look up the difference between i.e. and e.g.) or there’s a red squiggly line under the word you wrote, but I suppose here I’m assuming that the person has a high enough computer literacy to be able to do this. However, I am curious about one thing: why do you assume that difficulty writing properly equates to difficulty reading properly? Also, I’d like to note that generally I haven’t been annoyed with writing that represented a non-standard dialect, as long as the words within that dialect were spelled correctly.

    • November 29, 2012 10:47 am

      Hi Nastassja – I don’t think I did make that assumption? Or if that came across in my post, I didn’t mean for it to. The two are of course interrelated to a certain extent, but I do come across students in my classes who can read well but who struggle to write.

      • Guest permalink
        November 29, 2012 10:28 pm

        There are specifics categories of learning disabilities that relate to writing, copying, and similar tasks. Reading and processing what was read is one thing; well, two. But making the switch to writing things down is a different process and that can have its own difficulties. It has to do with phonetic coding abilities.

        IMO, texting has added to the overall difficulty with spelling and grammar because these shortcuts are what people think is correct when it is actually shorthand. That is different that people who have a learning disability, come from a foreign country, or have any number of negative influences on their education. I would like to see that addressed in school: text v. “real spelling and grammar”.

  7. November 29, 2012 10:19 am

    Excellently formed list of literary privileges, and much appreciate conversation here. Thanks for sharing.- B.

  8. nop permalink
    November 29, 2012 7:45 pm

    “atrostrophes”? I assume you meant apostrophes?

    ;)

  9. Ryan permalink
    November 29, 2012 9:33 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I was shocked by the statistics on adult literacy, and found your Literacy Privilege Checklist fascinating. I note, however, that “Providing my unsolicited opinion through publicly posting to an internet forum or blog comment section” failed to make the list. I am an erstwhile grammar nazi, and I have a deep and abiding love for the English language. And though I agree that we should not judge those that have difficulty reading and writing with the fluency that allows for comfort in day-to-day life, I am not certain that same compassion needs to be extended to people who offer their written words up for public consideration via the internet. Not all forms of expression are democratic. For instance, I love to dance, and I am an absolutely terrible dancer. So – while I may dance alone, or in the company of good friends, I would not presume to cause others to watch me dance and expect to avoid criticism. Specific to the internet, which is where I do most of my grammatical ‘invading of Poland’, I feel that if you are crafting your contribution and releasing it into the ether, you should be comfortable with not only grammatical corrections, but also outright ad homonym attacks. It’s the nature of the medium – the internet is not a friendly place. Grammar is not about fascism, generally. It is about precision. It is an important tool in being able to communicate exactly, and to be understood as exactly. Please feel free to illuminate the several grammatical errors I have made in this comment. I love to learn.

    • November 29, 2012 10:23 pm

      Hi Ryan – I’m afraid I have to take issue with your analogy. Dancing is an activity undertaken for fun or exercise, in one’s free time, often frivolously. Being unable to dance well does not place major limitations on a person’s life. Communication, on the other hand, is crucial to a person’s full engagement in human society. To say that someone with poor grammar skills should not expect to participate in our era’s most extensive communication medium – the Internet – without being belittled is akin to saying that a person with a limp should not expect to walk down the street without being belittled.

      While it is true that the Internet is not a friendly place, perhaps that is because there is not enough discourse around these kinds of issues. Instead of using that as an excuse to perpetuate grammar Nazism, I choose to try to change the discourse.

      • Ryan permalink
        November 29, 2012 11:04 pm

        Aren’t you kind of dodging around your own thesis there? I agree that bad grammar and an inability to precisely use language should not hold a person from the necessities of life, and a position of equality in society. I have to take issue with your assertion that being able to express yourself without fear of petty criticism on the internet is fundamental to that “full engagement”. I can think of a number of people in my own family who have not even the most basic understanding of the internet, and are fully engaged in society. As well, folks I have met in the developing world for whom the internet is an interesting fairy tale, but who still manage to effect change in their communities. The internet is becoming fundamental to the human experience of communication, but we’re not there yet… And my point is that even with terrible grammar, folks are still emailing, facebooking, tweeting, etc. to their heart’s content, and I don’t have any issue with that. I am not advocating hacking someone’s gmail account to red pen their steamy exchange with a co-worker. It just strikes me as strange that content for written for public consumption should be somehow exempt from criticism, when that safe zone exists in no other medium. That includes forum commenters. At the DMV, or on a medical form, or reporting a crime, I am not going to take issue with your grammar. In a rhetorical exchange on the internet – which to me (obviously ;-) is “an activity undertaken for fun or exercise, in one’s free time, often frivolously” – grammar contributes to the consideration I give to the strength of your argument or opinion. You are right, though – it shouldn’t be (and isn’t) the sole criteria given consideration. But I do know an awful lot of people who wouldn’t consider themselves terribly oppressed, who have no disability, and who happily admit that their grammar is terrible because they are lazy and don’t really care. I also know a number of ESL folks whose understanding of, and appreciation for, English grammar exponentially exceeds my own.

        Also – dancing is more universally understood than grammar, and exists in places where there is no written language. I would say that dancing is more widely (if shallowly) important to full human engagement than the internet. :-)

  10. StuartG permalink
    November 30, 2012 2:55 am

    Hey Cuz… I loved, laughed, and cried reading this article… I also have another pet hate which I think belongs along the lines of this discussion, although it is usually the spoken word more often than the written… DOUBLE NEGATIVES!!! From simple statements like “I ai’t got no money!!” which means quite the opposite, to the more sinister criminal declaring “I didn’t do nothing to the victim!!” which actually is a cast iron plea of guilt that they actually did do something… That is my Naziism… Huge love Cuz xxxxx

    • November 30, 2012 10:02 am

      Haha. Thanks for visiting, cousin – and don’t worry, those peeves can be overcome! ;)

    • Michael Smith permalink
      December 3, 2012 7:50 am

      In Chaucer’s day they just piled on negatives to reinforce the strength of the negation; they didn’t bother to count the number to see whether they came out as positive or negative. So much simpler than our modern abhorrence of the double-negative!

      • December 11, 2012 10:34 am

        You see it in old songs, too: “And it’s no, nay, never, no nay never no more…”

  11. Steve B permalink
    November 30, 2012 9:34 pm

    ‘atrostrophes’ isn’y a word. ‘Judgements’ is spelled incorrectly throughout.

    • December 1, 2012 10:41 am

      ‘Atrostrophes’ was intentional, as I explained in a comment above. ‘Judgements’ is an accepted spelling in Canada, where I live. But thank you for popping by to exemplify in your own comment another reason it’s a bad idea to criticize spelling and grammar on the Internet. :)

      • Michael Smith permalink
        December 3, 2012 7:54 am

        We prefer ‘judgement’ in standard British too. Judge not that ye shall be judged!

      • HeatherG permalink
        December 3, 2012 9:46 pm

        Australian grammar too.

        There’s even an English Rule (reason) as to why:

        G, when it has a sound on its own, may only say “j” when followed by an e, i or y (and c follows the same rule, except it’s “c always says s when followed by e, i, or y”).

        Follows through from the Old English usage. Links to Beowulfian tymes. ;-)

      • December 5, 2012 5:28 am

        Actually, I think you’ll find “isn’y” is Scots. Also spelled “isnae.” Gonnae no discriminate agin the dialects o ither fowk! ;)

      • Hilary permalink
        December 7, 2012 8:37 am

        You’re brilliant. It was wonderful to read the comments and see this brought up again, and watch the effortless slamdunk. (I teach adults online as well, and found your article to be a breath of fresh air. Thank you)

  12. December 1, 2012 6:41 am

    a great piece well done Chandra x

  13. December 2, 2012 10:45 am

    I’ve been slowly downsizing my self-appointed Spelling Police job for a while now. Thanks to this well written article, you’ve given me the gumption I needed to fire myself. Is it okay if I still cringe on the inside for a while, during my recovery?

    • December 2, 2012 12:58 pm

      Of course! I still do sometimes. It takes time to unlearn years of peevery.

  14. December 3, 2012 5:55 am

    This was really well written. It’s rare to see people distinguishing between the social prestige of a language variety and its linguistic validity, so hats off to you. I just have one gripe, which was this sentence: “I still have redhead moments where I snark before I think”. This is your non-redhead privilege talking, where it is acceptable to stereotype redheads as angry and irrational, possibly without even realising what you’re doing?

    • December 3, 2012 8:16 am

      But I am a redhead! I wouldn’t have said so otherwise. I’m not sure if you were being serious or facetious, but redheads of course aren’t systematically marginalized the way other groups of people are.

      • Laura permalink
        December 11, 2012 11:09 am

        Not anymore anyway. I believe there’s some history in Great Britain with redheads being regarded very negatively. Maybe that’s what they were talking about?

  15. December 3, 2012 9:20 am

    I think perhaps what hasn’t been said, but is extremely important in language use, is context. There are contexts in which there’s a need to be grammatically correct and to use the ‘standard’ spelling (of the country you’re in) and there are others when it really doesn’t matter – as long as the message is understood.
    I think perhaps there’s also an element of ‘I know more than you./I’m more intelligent than you.’ with people who constantly pick up on others’ language errors (in a non-professional context).

  16. December 3, 2012 9:55 am

    Excellent post. Thank you.

  17. Max permalink
    December 4, 2012 12:45 am

    Please accept my mad respect and admiration for your articulate, well written article!

  18. Anonymous for my father's sake permalink
    December 4, 2012 3:22 am

    Thank you.

    My father was kept out of school by his parents (remote community, correspondence school, they did the schoolwork instead of their kids, the kids did farm work).
    While my brother and I were in school, my father struggled through high school equivalency at night school; doing a more than full time job during the day, and making himself available to parent his children as well. (Using ‘parent’ in its verb sense there.)

    Mi fatherrs litirasee is pour – that’s what his spelling is still like, and his grammar is idiosyncratic at best..
    Despite this, he has produced a great deal of written work, teamed with my mother: he would produce the draft, with the ideas and the overall structure. She, who has learned his idiosyncracies of writing, translated it into literate, standard English.
    (He would not thank me for outing his so-called ‘shame’, so I wish to keep this anonymous for his sake. *I* am immensely proud of his achievements, and consider them even greater because he has achieved them despite the handicap.)

    My mother, my brother and I all ‘sound’ intelligent, both spoken and written, because we have the accent and the vocabulary of the middle to upper classes.
    Without the filter of my mother’s literacy, my father ‘sounds’ unintelligent to most when he writes, and his working-class accent makes him ‘sound’ unintelligent to the ill-informed when he speaks.
    Yet of the four of us, I think he may well be the brightest. Certainly he has succeeded in areas which require great literacy despite not having it; which is not an easy task.

    Chandra, thank you for your recognition of this problem, and for displaying it to the world.

    • December 4, 2012 8:07 am

      And thank you for sharing this moving story!

    • December 5, 2012 8:12 am

      I am deeply moved by this example. Thank you for sharing.

      • Anonymous for my father's sake permalink
        December 5, 2012 8:54 pm

        Thank you, Don – and Chandra.

        I only hope my father’s story can help others to understand the issue. It is most definitely neither a lack of intellect, nor a lack of effort, which has left him (and presumably others) with literacy problems to this day.

        He might have a learning disability – to my knowledge, he’s never been tested for one – but I suspect his greatest ‘disability’ is simply that he was kept out of school during the years when his brain was most receptive to learning language.

  19. siggi permalink
    December 4, 2012 7:38 am

    I for one consider Grammar Nazism a positive thing. However the problem presents itself in the form of ‘douchebaggery’. I for one am not native to an English speaking country. Therefor when making errors I am thankful for correction, because of this fact I correct what I can when I can in a non-asshole way. Which is rather simple. A reply with an asterisk or apostrophe.
    Doing this will correct the persons grammar or spelling in a non-offensive way. Yet for doing so I am called a Grammar Nazi (I really don’t like being called a Nazi).

    • December 4, 2012 7:46 am

      If you read my follow-up post here, you’ll see that I have addressed the issue of non-offensive corrections. But keep in mind that the person you’re correcting may not always read such replies as non-offensive.

      • Liadan permalink
        December 5, 2012 6:36 am

        I find the asterisk thing really condescending, personally. If there’s no context for a “correction” beyond that, it just comes across as, “I know what you meant to write better than you do,” especially as not all “corrections” are corrections.

    • Foreign permalink
      December 6, 2012 8:45 am

      I agree with siggi! (Siggi, “therefore” :-) .) Someone else also pointed out that you’re doing a disfavor to people who may need help speaking the language the way the “ruling” class does. I’m sure some people have dyslexia or other learning disabilities, but you can’t dismiss them for that. Many others, as you point out in your article, probably didn’t have the access. We can still help them now! Some of us will be nice to them, but the handful of us reading this kind of article will not change the world and people with spelling and grammar challenges will still be expected to do a little better if they want to do something other than flip burgers. Do we really want to give up on half of everyone?

      On the other hand, there really is no need for mockery when helping someone out. In fact, I’d go as far as to say, there’s no need for corrections on forums, unless language is being discussed, like here. What really bothers me is when texts with typos or grammar mistakes get published in articles, catalogs, magazines, or even online. If someone really feels like they need to write an article for the world to read, they can go through the extra trouble of using a dictionary (available at your local library), asking someone how to use auto correct, asking someone else to check their writing before publishing. When material gets printed (e.g. magazines, brochures, theater programs, signs(!!)), are you really going to tell me there is no proofing? It goes beyond being snob. I agree that language is dynamic, but we also need to keep some uniformity, for the sake of good communication, like Greg points out. Think of children. If we don’t agree on basic rules, what is that kid expected to do? What will the “right” way be?

      • December 6, 2012 10:13 am

        Please read my follow-up post here which addresses most of your points. Many people are misinterpreting a great deal of what I said, and this second post (hopefully) clears things up.

  20. December 4, 2012 9:48 am

    Very interesting. I’ve been looking for an argument like this for a while to help ease my own concerns about perpetuating privilege in my editing career. Thanks for making such a clear argument.

  21. December 4, 2012 12:10 pm

    An interesting essay, but ultimately incoherent and self-contradictory. For example, you rail against the “oppressive status quo” of standardized spelling. But, on the other hand, you complain about low literacy rates. The reality, however, is that standardized spelling was revolutionary specifically BECAUSE it enhanced literacy rates and made it easier to learn and acquire basic language skills.

    Furthermore, there is something truly repulsive about trying to identify education as a “privilege” in the same sense as white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, and the like. A racial minority cannot become white; a woman cannot gain access to male privilege (because transgenderism doesn’t actually open that clubhouse door all the way); and a gay man cannot wish himself straight.

    But the ignorant? They can become educated. Which is not to say that there aren’t difficulties some people face in the effort to become educated that other people do not; but using a vocabulary that treats a lack of knowledge as if it were a state of being instead of a correctable problem is, in my opinion, a really, really bad idea.

    • December 4, 2012 12:51 pm

      As I explained in my follow-up post, my issue is not with standardized spelling itself (or standardized grammar rules, or high-prestige dialects) but the approach people take when enforcing these conventions.

      As for ‘privilege’, you may choose to use this word solely in reference to permanent states of being, but I choose to use it according to its dictionary definition: “A peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor; a right or immunity not enjoyed by others or by all”. Note that any mention of permanent states of being is absent from this definition. I have simply provided a list of advantages that literate people enjoy over those with low literacy skills.

      The purpose of pointing out privilege is not at all to treat it as if it is not a “correctable problem”; on the contrary, the purpose is to raise awareness and empathy in the hopes that the same privileges will one day be available to all. I will do you the favour of assuming you did not mean to imply that one should have to “become white” or “become straight” in order to gain privilege. Such an opinion could be seen, perhaps, as repulsive, if a person were to choose to take a decidedly antagonistic view of your comments.

    • Anonymous for my father's sake permalink
      December 4, 2012 5:34 pm

      Justin,

      Regarding this premise: “But the ignorant? They can become educated. Which is not to say that there aren’t difficulties some people face in the effort to become educated that other people do not”

      If you read my comment above, you’ll discover that my father struggled to improve his literacy as an adult.

      He’s not stupid. He’s FAR from stupid. But despite years of effort, he is still semi-literate at best. He struggles to read, he struggles to write in anything other than his idiosyncratic parlance.

      I know this is not a statistical universe. But I assert that There Exists One or more X where X is a person for whom semi-literacy is effectively a permanent state.
      Translated from the formal logic: at least one intelligent person is semi-literate, effectively permanently, despite great effort on his part and on my mother’s. I doubt he’s alone in this situation.

      I note – and appreciate – that you acknowledge that it’s difficult. But I think it’s harder than you’re aware of.

    • Hilary permalink
      December 7, 2012 8:57 am

      Really the essay was incoherent? And illiteracy equates to ignorance? Really? Hmmm…I think our definitions of those words are vastly different. I found the essay easy to follow, and judging by your break down it seems like you grasped the major ideas of the piece. Only we disagree on it’s merit. According to your use here, if you don’t agree, then it is incoherent. So, you must, dear Hamlet, have a different definition you are wielding here. Also, I’ve met illiterate folks who taught me many things about the world, the many things in it, and how they work. If I didn’t know a thing that they knew, I don’t think I would feel “ignorant” and I sure as f@ck wouldn’t want them to call me it. Maybe you don’t mind when ignorant is used to describe you when discussing something that you don’t know, but in most case it’s a disparaging term.

  22. fran021 permalink
    December 5, 2012 4:48 am

    I’m a literacy volunteer, and it’s been one of the most reqarding experiences of my life.

    In the spirit of my favorite student, who greeted me on our first day with “Correction, correction, correction! I want all the time correction, or I will fire you!” please forgive me when I say there is only one “e” in “judgment” and it isn’t after the “g.” (Sorry…if it were me, I’d want to know.)

    • December 5, 2012 8:13 am

      I suppose I shouldn’t expect everyone to read all of the comments but… again… ‘judgement’ is how we spell it here in Canada.

      Thank you for the time you donate to helping others improve their literacy. I have seen how much it changes people’s lives.

    • Foreign permalink
      December 6, 2012 8:52 am

      Been there so many times. Why aren’t people taught the different accepted ways to spell and/or pronounce words in English? It definitely breaks communication.

  23. fran021 permalink
    December 5, 2012 4:49 am

    Of course, that’s “rewarding.”

  24. Katie permalink
    December 5, 2012 12:08 pm

    Thanks for a great read! I whole heartedly agree with everything you have written about and think this post is extremely well written and an important read for all!! However, I have to ask, is it okay to toss around the word Nazi so loosely like that? I cringe whenever I see it used in this fashion and I wonder if I am the only one who has this reaction?

    • December 5, 2012 1:22 pm

      Honestly, I have never actually heard of anyone being personally offended, due to their direct experience with the Holocaust, by this term. I have only heard of people being offended on behalf of other people who might be offended.

      On the argument that it somehow diminishes the gravity of the Holocaust, I would point out that nobody seems to feel this way about terms like ‘fascist’ or ‘tsarist’ used in an equally metaphorical sense, not to mention naming sports teams things like ‘Vikings’ and ‘Pirates’. Maybe that’s because their referents are generally further away in history – but WWII happened seventy years ago. The fact that ‘X Nazi’ is widely accepted seems to indicate that enough time has passed that the vast majority of people no longer have a personal emotional investment in the term.

      I am open, however, to hearing reasonable arguments to the contrary.

      • Liz permalink
        December 5, 2012 1:49 pm

        I am someone whose family history is intimately tied to the Holocaust, and it makes me feel awful every time I see “X Nazi.” Nobody alive today can remember a Viking raid, but there are Holocaust survivors all over the word for whom “Nazi” doesn’t mean “someone who is strict” but rather “someone who tried to strip me of my rights, of my humanity, and then of my life.” When I try to trace my mother’s family tree, there are whole branches lopped off. My mother herself is named in honour of two of my grandmother’s cousins who died in camps, but I know nothing more about that whole branch of family, because everyone who could tell me was either killed or too traumatized to talk about it. That’s my history. The effect of living as a person displaced by violence and prejudice affected how my grandmother raised her children, and the environment in which my mother grew and learned to be a parent. Those effects are passed down through generations.

        There are still people who profess those same beliefs – modern Nazis – in North America and Europe today; Jewish folks, like me, face anti-Semtism regularly in many forms. I’m sure the people who live in areas of the world where piracy is still a real danger to life and livelihood have different feelings about the word “pirate” than I do, too – and I know that my relatives who have lived through Fascist régimes feel the same way about that word, too. These issues are real and alive to us.

        You have done a wonderful job of considering your privilege as a literate person. I don’t know anything about your family history, but if it doesn’t include genocide, perhaps you might reflect on the privilege inherent in that, as well?

      • Katie permalink
        December 5, 2012 2:23 pm

        Interesting reasoning. I suppose everyone has their own gauge as to what is acceptable and what is not. Personally, I don’t find myself using any of those terms lightly. I do find that the use of ‘ X Nazi’ does diminish the gravity of the Holocaust, which is probably why I cringe when I see it written. I am not sure I would agree that the use of ‘X Nazi’ is currently widely accepted. Chandra, I am curious, would you use it in your classroom?

      • December 5, 2012 2:30 pm

        Liz – That’s good enough for me. I’ll update accordingly. I apologize for any distress this usage caused you in my post.

      • Liz permalink
        December 5, 2012 3:27 pm

        Chandra – Thanks, I really appreciate your willingness to see my perspective as well as your apology.

  25. December 5, 2012 3:45 pm

    My new book Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free explains why so many people who grew up in the United States are functionally illiterate. Widespread illiteracy and ignorance are the predictable results of educational policies that were implemented for political reasons. The book also explains what civility really is, and how debate differs from dialectic. The book is being published by Freedom of Speech Publishing. It’s currently in press. http://www.nottrivial.blogspot.com

  26. Nica permalink
    December 5, 2012 3:53 pm

    Where did you get the 50% stat from that study?

  27. December 7, 2012 12:27 pm

    As one of my part-time jobs, I teach violin. I have been doing it long enough so that no matter what comes out of a student’s violin, my skin doesn’t crawl. But it’s still unpleasant. This situation is not entirely analogous to the grammar Nazi thing because I’m being paid to correct them.

    Basic grammar errors from Americans who have graduated from high school are just as grating to me as the screech of a beginning violin student. They SHOULD know better; they had to study English for 6 years in school.

    I don’t often correct posters although I have been known to be ferocious about it in political arguments. There is no reason whatsoever for spelling errors any more; if a word is misspelled the user has chosen the wrong word and doesn’t know the difference.

    I read your original article and although I agree with many points in it, I disagree with the assertion that grammar Nazis are bad people. They’re just people who are motivated differently than you are. So, forgive me if I tell you that you sound like somebody at an AA meeting running down their former bad self. You were never that bad. You just changed.

    -Wexler

    • December 9, 2012 12:24 pm

      No, I don’t think they’re bad people – just often misguided, and not fully informed about the realities of language and literacy skills.

      As a former high school teacher and current instructor of low-literacy adults (many of whom were pushed through the system), let me assure you that the idea that people “should know better” if they’ve graduated high school is simply not true. If a person misses out on basic reading and writing instruction in grades 1-3, which can happen for any number of different reasons, more often than not they will not learn these skills during their remaining school years. Some people can simply “pick it up” as they continue along, but a great many can’t. And teachers are under pressure to keep students moving through the system, whether they’re ready or not, and regardless of the lack of funding for additional support.

      • December 9, 2012 1:16 pm

        If what you say is true about the education system (and I believe it to be true although our small town has outstanding schools), isn’t correcting someone’s English GENTLY doing them a favor? First, it shows them that there is a correct way to write and speak and they don’t know how it’s done. Second, it shows that there are people who care about the way that you speak and write, which may help motivate them to try a bit harder.

        I realize that taking this side of the argument is a fool’s errand. I lived in the south of Texas for 10 years and a very high percentage of people down there are unable to read or write in both languages that they speak. My brother got out of the Peace Corps in the mid-60s and went to teach senior English in the Buffalo NY school system. He was supposed to be teaching literature, and 75% of the class couldn’t read.

        I think you’ve got a golden soul for doing what you’re doing. It’s hard work. One of the side effects of your job is to teach people how to avoid becoming the prey of grammar nazis. After reading your article, I plan to lighten up, so you made a difference. I will still skewer anyone in a political fight for even a punctuation error. All’s fair in love and politics.

      • December 9, 2012 2:54 pm

        “First, it shows them that there is a correct way to write and speak and they don’t know how it’s done.” – Oh, they know that. They have been told over and over how WRONG they are, every day of their lives.

        There may be times when a gentle correction is appropriate and helpful, as I touched on in my second post on this subject. But in many (I’d say most) cases, it does not actually help. It’s very hard for someone who reads and writes well to be cognizant of how incredibly complex a process it is to encode and decode text symbols. Children from literate families with minimal barriers to education learn these skills easily. But for people with learning disabilities, or adults who did not have adequate educational opportunities when they were young, learning these complex skills is a massive and exhausting chore.

        Think about it this way. If people’s literacy skills could be easily improved by reading the isolated corrections of strangers on the Internet (of which there are no shortage), what need would there be for programs like mine?

        I appreciate you taking the time to consider and discuss these issues with me – I don’t have all the answers and I don’t expect to change everyone’s mind, but I’m just happy that a lot of people seem willing to have this discussion at all.

  28. December 9, 2012 9:31 pm

    I have (almost) always viewed attacks on the grammar, usage, and mechanics of comments as a form of setting up a straw man. Address the content if there’s something to address. The rest is irrelevant.

  29. John Fox permalink
    December 9, 2012 10:31 pm

    *Ad hominem*. Homonyms have nothing to do with it. Not even in any known ghetto or immigrant dialect. And there’s no way you are underschooled. I assume you *meant* ad hominem. And I’m not using only little mistake to discredit you instead of criticising your argument, which is thoughtful and worthwhile. But surely it illustrates that people can simply make little mistakes that can be corrected.

    • December 10, 2012 8:00 am

      I put ‘homonym’ in italics in the hopes that people would get the joke. It’s an intentional play on the word ‘ad hominem’ – as in, attacking someone for their use of their/there/they’re (homonyms) rather than focusing on their argument.

  30. December 10, 2012 5:10 am

    thankyou for writing this im dyslexic and i allways avoid texting/ facebook/writing on internet/ going into bookshops because i cant say the althabet / map reading because i dont know left and right. i wish more people would understand when they corect peoples spelling and grammer how much more of soceity they can access then the people theyre correcting the spelling of. its not like i can go and learn how to spell because dylexia isnt as simple as that.

  31. Phil permalink
    December 10, 2012 6:33 am

    Hi Chandra, I tried my best to look at all the comments so I hope this isn’t already covered above. I thought the article was brilliant (thank you for the great read) but would like to bring up one point. I know a few people who chat to me through text, facebook or email etc. who I know that their capabilities of literacy is/was far better than how they now write. Through laziness, I assume, they just don’t bother to type more than necessary; they shorten every word above 4 letters long, use no punctuation, causing me to spend far more time trying to decode their message or having to reply to ask for another reply that is coherent. An example from yesterday: in response to me saying we might have a problem with x, they said “f**k it forget it”, to which I had to ask: forget x or don’t worry about the possible problem.
    Do we have the right to get annoyed at situations like that? At people who write a lengthy melodramatic post on a social media (when they went to the same high-school as me) and yet still use the same ‘your’ on every occasion? When they want me to pay attention to their opinion, yet write with no punctuation – like the guy we all know with the monotone voice who should be paid to put kids to sleep – yet don’t bother to express themselves properly? I’m not a ‘spelling/grammar hall-monitor’ (perhaps a better term) but is this situation fine to stand up for the importance of literacy and say something like “you may have had a point, but I lost interest trying to decipher your drivel.”
    Just to clarify, I love finding an example of a great writer who uses punctuation etc. in a way that would make my old English teacher shudder – language is the slave, the author the master – but they always used it in that regard on purpose. Whether to get a better sense of the author’s/character’s voice or to give more emotion (or less), it made sense to all readers.
    I hope my comment made sense (in this wine-saturated state) and thanks again for an article that has caused me to rethink my online pedantry.

    • December 10, 2012 8:10 am

      If it’s getting in the way of comprehension, and you know for sure the person is capable of clearer language, I see nothing wrong with bringing it up (although personally, I’d hesitate to jump to the conclusion that it’s done out of “laziness” – they may think they’re merely being efficient).

      I’m uncomfortable framing this as me telling you whether you have the right to do something – I can only tell you what I would choose to do in a similar situation. I would probably tell the person that I find it difficult to understand their message when they use excessive abbreviations, and ask them to be clearer. You are of course free to use your own judgement, given the context and your relationship with the person in question.

      Thanks for your comments, and I appreciate that you took the time to read the others as well.

      • Phil permalink
        December 10, 2012 4:49 pm

        Thanks for your reply, Chandra. You may be right, they may find it efficient and perhaps in some sense cool. Whilst the email I referred to, which didn’t say enough to know what they meant, may not definitely have been laziness but was surely written in haste without too much thought.
        Sorry I did write that after a few red wines and whilst I did make the statement “can we say blah blah”, I was mainly asking – to put it in another way without the use of the word ‘right’ – should we feel ashamed when we get annoyed by others’ lack of concern in how they right?
        My main consoling thought – and could possibly make me say no! to my own question – is that levels of literacy were far worse in many periods of history and yet today we still have many wonderful and rich languages to learn and appreciate.
        To slide one more rhetorical question in, maybe my annoyance is simply the same emotion a car lover would get when someone says “cars just get me from A to B.”

    • December 10, 2012 11:17 am

      English is a living language. I just don’t like its lifestyle. :-)

  32. John permalink
    December 10, 2012 1:51 pm

    Thanks for this…you have opened my eyes, I promise to stop being an a**hole.

  33. Dawn permalink
    December 10, 2012 6:20 pm

    I am a person with a learning disorder, I’m actually Dyslexic with other ones on top of it. You may however notice that my text is perfectly legible, this is because the majority of people with learning disorders try harder than people without because communication is so important to society. The majority of individuals who write like they’re typing with their nose typically are not illiterate, do not have a learning disability and yes, some of them can type probably but choose not to do so because people as a whole regard the internet to require less stringency with literacy than say a job application.

    Not to mention, do you know what it is like trying to read something written by some guy who just can’t be bothered? It’s exhausting for your information. Well written posts are desirable for learning disabled people as well because they’re easier to read. I have actually had people basically tell me I had no right to receive clear responses so I could take part in a debate because “they might be disabled”. Such attitudes often end up shutting out learning disabled people entirely if we need legible information. People always forget the reader can be disabled as well.

    I am so sick of the meme that people who type like monkeys are automatically practically guaranteed to be one of us, when in fact they’re more likely to not actually be one of us. It’s insulting, like people don’t think we’re capable of using the assistance devices available to communicate well simply because we have a learning disability or whenever we show better than they expect, they discount our disabilities entirely.
    The result is those of us who have developed coping skills or similar are often outright denied help because we’re not “bad” enough. I had one encounter with a specialist learning disability team, a group that was supposed to help me look after my rights, during which I was told I wasn’t really learning disabled because I could learn articulate and speak. This kind of “learning disabled people are always obviously incapable” hurts us. Seriously, unless the person says they’re disabled, you shouldn’t assume.
    My disability does not stop me from using spell check, or learning simple rote rules that make my typing legible, fair enough my handwriting is still godawful, there isn’t a solution for that yet, but learning disabled people are more than capable of communicating and of speaking for ourselves, we really don’t need you to do it for us especially when you perpetuate issues we face in doing it.

    Your literacy privilege check list has a number of glaring errors as well. There’s more to finding one’s way around a city than reading road signs. I can read road signs, I still have navigational issues due to the fact that my condition comes with directional confusion, so if someone gives me directions, I have extreme trouble following them. Most people do not know that most dyslexic people cannot tell right from left reliably.

    As for product labels? Given the amount of misleading or downright deceptive labelling, it isn’t always enough to be able to read them. For example, many low fat products are ridiculously high in sugar and salt, and therefore very unhealthy. Natural which many companies use? Doesn’t actually mean anything. I don’t need to read a label to tell the difference between fresh produce and processed produce.

    You’ve also completely forgotten in most of it that learning disabilities affect more than just reading. One of the biggest misconceptions about conditions like mine, I’m forever being told that I’m “not really” dyslexic and don’t have other conditions because it’s my writing that is the most wonky part. I may be able to read a form in front of me, I still need someone else to fill it in though due to my writing being both illegible and painful for me to do.

    “And the more I understand about my fellow human beings, the more I recognize the importance of taking the time to stop, listen, and learn about their struggles before unleashing my own careless judgements.”

    You seemingly forgot to do this before you posted this. Your post appropriates our struggles with the world, it appropriates our anger, it needed more research, more understanding of our voices and how not to harm us.

    In summary, this kind of annoyed me as a learning disabled person, because it’s yet another depiction of us by a non-learning disabled person who it seems hasn’t talked to actual LD advocates about what we need.

    • December 10, 2012 6:30 pm

      I work with people with LD (and other obstacles to learning) every day, and it is their stories that prompted this post, not my own. It’s great that you have access to support and accommodations to help you, but not everyone does. Also, I probably don’t need to tell you that not everyone’s LD looks the same, so the experiences you describe are not universal. Finally, at no point in this post did I say that all examples of non-standard language come from people with LD – in fact I went out of my way to discuss several different possible contributing factors. You are putting words in my mouth.

      If you read the comments above, you will see others who have posted about their struggles and how this issue affects them. This post may not reflect your reality, but it does for others. I can’t speak for the experiences of all people with LD, but neither can you.

      • Dawn permalink
        December 11, 2012 11:17 am

        Do you have any idea how many people “work with people with disabilities” and still manage to spread harmful appropriative ideas? FYI, it’s a lot. Working with people with these conditions is not the same as having them. To be blunt, much of the services aimed at people with disabilities is full of disabilist assumptions and beliefs. In my experience, the ingrained prejudices of people who work with people with disabilities are often the hardest to shift because often they think they know it all.

        Except I don’t have access to support and accommodations, largely because of the beliefs you are supporting in this post. I simply am capable of using a spellchecker and spent the time to kludge together a working rule system that lets me communicate legibly most of the time. Those coping skills often mean though that i get denied help because of the belief that your typing must look like you typed it with your forehead for you to be learning disabled.

        Also when someone with the condition you’re talking about tells you that you’re HURTING them and people like them, that is not your cue to go “well I know people who don’t find this harmful”, it’s your cue to realise that someone is telling you that posts like yours cause HARM. I’ve yet to ever see anyone with these conditions plea for the things you do, appropriate accommodations yes, blanket stereotypical assumptions that ignore a large chunk of us in favour of deciding learning disability is one thing? No.

      • Dawn permalink
        December 11, 2012 11:29 am

        Oh and looking over the comments, I note a grand total of two, one from someone who is dyslexic and who needs nothing more than to run their post through a spellchecker really since it is entirely legible, and another talking about someone second hand who probably doesn’t have a LD. I do not see this army of dyslexics agreeing with you, I see a lot of people who tend to correct others themselves agreeing with you, when they can no more know what it’s like to have a learning disability than you do.

      • December 11, 2012 2:13 pm

        It is not a “blanket stereotypical assumption” that many (not all, and nowhere did I say so) people with LD face many of the challenges I describe. I do not have to have LD myself to know this. I see concrete examples of it with my own eyes every single day. I did not say or imply that LD is only “one thing” – I am talking about some people’s experience of it. You, in fact, are making blanket assumptions based on your own personal experiences. Your experiences do not apply to everyone else.

        This post is not all about you and your particular version of LD. It is about people with other, non-LD related obstacles to learning, and people whose LD does happen to impact their skills and their lives in the way I describe, whether you believe these people exist or not.

        There have been several comments from people with LD or other obstacles to learning, not just here, but on other sites that link here and from people I know in person, telling me that this post does in fact speak to their reality. Not yours – theirs. One person telling me it is somehow “harmful” -and then only by misrepresenting, exaggerating and making false assumptions about my statements – does not convince me of anything. If you are being denied accommodation because people think your LD isn’t bad enough, that is a legitimately terrible problem, but I do not do that to people, and this post does not advocate such a thing.

        Furthermore, a privilege checklist is not meant to be taken as a comprehensive list where every point applies to every person in the same way. It is a list of possible scenarios where, depending on the context, some people sometimes have advantages over some other people. It doesn’t mean (and doesn’t say so anywhere) that all people with low literacy skills will experience all of the things on the checklist.

        Also, spell check is not a magical solution to everyone’s language problems. Some applications don’t have a spell checker. Spell checkers don’t catch homonyms. Assuming a person can use a spell checker is assuming that their spelling skills are strong enough to be able to choose the correct alternative from the list of suggested changes, or that their skills are strong enough that the spell checker will even be able to guess what word they want. You may be able to do these things, and that’s great for you, but not everyone can.

        This post is not advocating that we should throw away grammar and spelling conventions. I am well aware that such conventions make reading easier for some people. All this post is advocating is that people should try not to be jerks when talking about other people’s language skills. And frankly, saying things like “they write like they’re typing with their nose/ forehead” is exactly the kind of condescending attitude I’m talking about, and it displays your own lack of knowledge about the issues in question. It also borders on violating the comments policy.

  34. Cory permalink
    December 10, 2012 11:16 pm

    I dislike people who are strict on grammar, it is not like they have never made any mistakes before. I have found that I tend to punctuate and write following the rhythm and sound of my own “dialect” of English. Even though I never make an obvious spelling mistake like “facter”, I do make mistakes from time to time. So I know better than to sneer at spelling mistakes.
    My thoughts on helping this matter would be a change of orthography towards closely resembling the spoken word.
    I cannot help but to think of the poor, disadvantaged international students at my university trying to understand why “ough” makes so many different sounds and why gaol (AmE. jail) has a soft g in front of a vowel that usually causes a hard g.

  35. December 11, 2012 10:57 am

    Reblogged this on The Adventures of Framboise and commented:
    This is so true and sad and weird.

  36. December 11, 2012 11:04 am

    It’s worth noting too that there are people who fall partway through the spectrum. My husband and my roommate are both generally literate, read for pleasure, correspond, and do many of the things on the list, but both of them will regularly ask me to accompany them on official business to interpret the documents, or just hand official documents to me directly when they arrive in the mail. My previous roommate was entirely illiterate until he was 12, and while he’s perfectly capable of reading and understanding official documents, philosophy texts, etc, his writing skills would seriously hamper him in many careers, and are currently impeding his ability to get a better job.

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