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

December 6, 2012

Okay, this is my last word on this subject for the foreseeable future. I promise.

Below are some paraphrased responses to my first post on literacy privilege that I wanted to address. (More on classroom instruction, elitism/oppression, etc. in the second post here.)

1. But I want (or my student/tutee/relative/co-worker/friend/study-buddy/acquaintance wants) to be corrected! I (They) love to learn, and don’t mind at all having my (their) discussion continuously interrupted by people pointing out mistakes!

That is truly wonderful. I salute you (them), and your (their) congenial humility and unwavering commitment to personal improvement. By all means, if people ask you to correct them, go right ahead and do it. But please keep in mind that just because you (they) feel comfortable with this doesn’t mean everyone else on the planet does too.

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!

Yes.

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.

3. But aren’t you effectively saying nobody should ever edit or proofread anybody else’s writing, anywhere, at any time, regardless of context or logic or reasonable cause?

Of course not. That is a ridiculously overblown interpretation of my point.

3(b). So what are you saying, then?

Be nice to people.
Think about where they might be coming from.
Understand that you might not know anything at all about their background.
Realize that you very probably don’t know everything there is to know about the English language.
Consider that mistakes are not the end of the world.
Understand that flippant comments by a stranger on the Internet are not going to “fix” a person’s language skills.
Consider the context, and whether making a correction is appropriate.
If it is appropriate, consider that a polite and reasonable tone is a lot more likely to get you what you want than a douchebaggy rant.
Think about how you respond to sneering criticism. Think about whether other people are likely to respond any differently.
Realize that derailing a discussion to argue about grammar is going to annoy a lot of other readers.
Consider your true intentions.
Consider that other people will read your response, and it will in turn influence how they respond to others.
Consider that you contribute to a culture on the Internet (and everywhere else in your life). It is up to you to decide what you want that culture to look like. Use your voice accordingly.

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63 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2012 11:08 pm

    This whole series of posts has been really enlightening, I’m so glad a friend of mine shared it! I’ve had similar revelations while attempting to learn a second (and third, and fourth) language as an adult – it’s remarkable to see how often, for example, a German speaker might be reticent to speak English with me because they’re self conscious about how many errors they’re going to make (despite having a solid grasp of the language), but at the same time be nothing but encouraging and congratulatory as I fumble my way through a few poorly-structured sentences in German. I remember being terrified of moving to Germany because I thought nobody would be able to tell that I was a reasonably intelligent person due to the fact that my German was still quite primitive, and therefore nobody would respect me.
    Nevertheless I can’t say I’d joined all the dots completely with regards to native English speakers (especially on the internet) until reading these articles. Thank you so much for presenting a compassionate, thoughtful and accessible argument against elitism.

  2. Johnny permalink
    December 10, 2012 8:01 pm

    I appreciate your thoughts! Yesterday a woman sat down at a computer next to me in a library and asked me to help her send an email, which meant everything from finding the “start” button to helping her spell several words. I think of her — and the fact that she was emailing a professor for her nursing class! — as I reflect on what you’ve written. What would have happened if she had sat down next to someone who wasn’t willing to take the time to help her, or who belittled her functional illiteracy? Possibly, the world would have lost a future nurse.

    • Nate Whilk permalink
      December 12, 2012 5:40 pm

      And certainly, the world would’ve lost a nurse who kills patients because she can’t read or write! Are you serious?????

      • December 12, 2012 6:36 pm

        There is nothing in the above comment to suggest she can’t read (often people who struggle with spelling can read just fine), and presumably if her skills were so weak as to impede her ability to do her job, she would not pass the requisite exams. There is not enough information here for anyone to judge her potential competence as a nurse.

    • Rosamond permalink
      December 13, 2012 9:10 am

      I would help someone who asked me but I would be very nervous if I knew my nurse didn’t have a strong grasp of written instructions. Very nervous.

  3. Caleb permalink
    December 12, 2012 8:29 am

    These posts have been remarkably refreshing.

    I’ve been working in a library, helping people who have not yet found use for computers, and feel scared of them. And often ashamed, as if they are somehow responsible for learning how Windows works. I’ve seen them shut-down because of careless comments of people around them. And I’d even seen these same people exhibit the same behavior with regards to literacy.

    I thank you for your post, because even given my experiences helping people with computers and literacy, I had not yet checked my literacy privelege. You saved me 4 years of getting bashed over the head with it. I really learned something from your posts, and intend to modify my behavior. And I’ve been spamming this to all of my friends.

    This was such an important read for me. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  4. Ruben permalink
    December 12, 2012 10:50 am

    Dmitry Orlov has proposed an new English orthography, with two earlier posts on why English is hard to learn, and what can be done.

    http://cluborlov.blogspot.ca/2012/12/applied-anarchy-part-iii-design-phase.html

  5. December 12, 2012 10:54 am

    What drove home the point for me is visiting Germany, and trying to take cold medication — and give it to my son. I studied German in college; worked there for six months; still read and listen to German; visit family every couple of years. I cannot read the instructions on the cough medicine without a dictionary. I could not read a legal document without my (native German) cousin translating into English. For a tourist, my German is great. But it’s not functional.

  6. LoveAllLanguage permalink
    December 12, 2012 4:18 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful series of articles. I was a Linguistics major for a time, and studying Linguistics completely opened my eyes to the dynamics between power and ‘standard’ forms of language. I feel frustrated when I (frequently) hear people argue that there is a ‘right’ form of English and that the English language is ‘going to hell.’ Frustrated because people have been complaining about the English language degenerating since Shakespeare’s time, and really, if they are so concerned about keeping English ‘pure,’ maybe they should learn how to speak Old English. That was the original English, after all. Or was it? Old High German? Maybe Proto-Indo-European? Grrr. Or how about the fact that the form of English that used to be considered standard wasn’t even the Queen’s English. Before London became the economic and social center of England, the ‘proper’ form was Wessex English. Or, even when you look at the qualities we still associate with some words, you can see the relationship between privilege and pinning inherent value to language. For instance, to this day, the verb ‘to dine’ has an association of high quality and class, versus ‘to eat.’ This is because ‘to dine’ came to the English language through Norman French, and ‘to eat’ is from Anglo-Saxon. The Norman’s conquered England, of course, and after that French had an association with power and privilege over Anglo-Saxon.

    Actually, over Thanksgiving, I got into a very heated debate about this issue with my sister and brother-in-law. My sister speaks Standard English, and my brother-in-law grew up in Detroit, and he speaks with a Detroitian (Is that a word? Maybe it is now, ha ha) dialect. They have a three year old, and my sister is very concerned that he is going to pick up my brother-in-law’s grammar, rather than her standard grammar, and therefore be at a disadvantage as an adult in the working world. From my understanding, my nephew will probably pick up both ways of speaking, but subconsciously also pick up that one is more standard because he will see it used by the media and people in positions of authority and power, and be able to switch back and forth as he likes. That being said, I wish we lived in a country where we didn’t attach a higher value and other qualities to one dialect over all the others. So thank you for writing these articles -maybe if more people write about this and so more people learn, our society’s view of language will change.

    • December 13, 2012 8:49 pm

      Actually, it’s most likely that your nephew will speak like his own peers, not precisely like either of his parents. Most of what you say is spot on, but it’s unlikely that you will ever find a country with a variety of dialects and in which all varieties are equally valued; in groups of people, some will be valued more highly than others, and the way the more highly valued speak will be more highly valued. Chandra’s point, as I understand it, is that we can treat others with respect, no matter how they’re valued.

  7. December 12, 2012 6:11 pm

    This series of articles has changed me, I hope I can keep this in mind from now on and not correct when it’s not helpful. Thankyou, Chandra.

  8. December 13, 2012 9:06 am

    Thanks for these articles. Language, dialects, slang, and bad grammar all exist along a continuum, and education, opportunity and discrimination cross it at many points.

    I love the English language and try to speak and write it well, and cringe when I see it used “wrong” – but the right answer to that is never ridicule or shaming. Online, or in the real world. Educated folks can be shockingly ignorant about the experience of other people. As a doctor, I see patients with some frequency who can’t fill out paperwork in the office; one of my colleagues was complaining about the people who “can’t be bothered” to fill the history forms out and was surprised by my suggestion that maybe some patients leave things blank because they can’t read or write. I know a whole lot of people who could learn much from your perspective here.

    • December 13, 2012 3:58 pm

      I, too, have a deep and abiding love for the English language, to the point where it often feels like a kick in the gut when I see it used online. I cannot help but envision a little “I’m an idiot” flag popping up next to a post when I see “your” used for “you’re” etc.

      I’ve always consciously understood the role of privilege in language, and have unconsciously steered away from criticizing members of other groups for their grammatical errors. Members of my own peer group (white, educated, middle class and above), however, I’ve always felt free to correct (never mock, never yell at, but correct nonetheless). I’ve always understood “proper English” as a product of a dominant culture — and I’ve been fine with that. Nice to see a dominant culture doing SOME good for once — that is, protecting this beautiful, wonderful language we call English from the vandals who would reduce her to the garbled mewlings of LOLcats.

      However, the first article in this series gave me a lot to think about. I suffer from a mild dyscalculia… I can add, subtract, and multiply, and with enough effort do long division, but I never did manage to understand algebra or anything more advanced. Why did it never occur to me that just as I can’t understand math, there are people who, despite being educated, have brains that have difficulty with grammatical rules?

      I still don’t want to see the language fall apart. I don’t want everything I read online to look like a gigantic text message. But I am going to take a deep breath when I see “their” used for “there” and try to check my privilege. It’s not going to be a lot of fun.

  9. December 13, 2012 9:31 am

    Thanks so much for these essays. As a grammar and spelling challenged person – I’m very right brained – these are great points to make. I actually write fairly well but without spell check and friends to proof, people would assume I’m an idiot.

  10. December 13, 2012 10:53 am

    This was an excellent read, and I plan to share it with my colleagues.

    I have had a very enriching experience over last few years, working closely with a colleague who struggles with spelling and grammar. This is something that has always come fairly easily to me, and I often struggled with having empathy for others in different situations. The very telling thing, however, was the incredible skill with which my coworker can build a functional device out of found materials (something I absolutely CANNOT seem to do easily). This made it very clear to me – it’s not that one of us is more intelligent than the other – our brains just work very differently. From now on, when we collaborate, I do the writing, he does the building, our finished product is awesome, and both of us feel as though we have succeeded.

  11. December 13, 2012 11:18 am

    This is an excellent series of posts Chandra. Thanks for spurring some deep thought and reflection for me. I’ve shared your posts on my twitter feed. By the way, I don’t see any share buttons on your page, why is that? Maybe I’m missing them? Anyway, I do notice that while writing the last two comments I’ve shared on this topic (this one and the one I just wrote on part 2), I have been hyper-conscious about my grammar. Not sure what that’s about, but thank you for sharing your thoughts on all this with us Out There.

    • December 13, 2012 11:51 am

      Thanks for your comments! I don’t have share buttons because… well, up until two weeks ago nobody read this blog but me and a few of my friends and family, so I never had a need for them. I’m not even sure how to add them, but I’ll look into it. :)

      • December 13, 2012 8:53 pm

        Chandra, soon I might be sharing these posts with tutors in the Writing Center we’re starting at the college where I’m teaching these days. What kind of credit would you like? I’m actually thinking of providing our tutors with the links to read directly from your blog.

      • December 14, 2012 11:46 am

        Hi Lew – Feel free to use these posts however you wish. A link to the blog would be appreciated. Thanks for asking!

  12. December 13, 2012 11:54 am

    I like your essay, though I think you could end by referencing Wheaton’s Law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheaton%27s_Law#Wheaton.27s_law

  13. Sharon permalink
    December 13, 2012 12:26 pm

    I came to this serieis of posts through a link at BoingBoing, appreciate the thought and care that went into this, Chandra.

    I also spent many years teaching adults, and having many of my “privileged” ideas politely (or not) handed back to me to re-examine. Like you, I changed my language from “right and wrong” to “local” and “standard.” I focused on teaching standard English for academic and business purposes by likening it to appropriate dressing: would you wear Vans with a business suit? And if you chose to, might other people question your choice?

    I read through all the comments, and enjoyed the discussion. I would like to use the list of “Literacy Privilege” discussion-starters, if I may (with proper credit, naturally).

    • December 13, 2012 1:00 pm

      Of course, please feel free to use them! I like your business suit analogy, and will probably borrow that for my own class.

  14. Erica permalink
    December 13, 2012 1:34 pm

    A lot of your points run similar to my line of thought on the matter but I have a different prospective. I am more of a logic nazi than a grammarian. I am more in line with the generation of fact checkers than the grammar police.

    1) The barrier to entry for communication should be low. We should allow anyone who wants to communicate to do so. How they write does not really matter if people understand what they are saying. We all know who is high status and low status in writing. Why rub it in?

    2) The barrier to entry for logic should be higher. This is because people write logical arguments to influence others. I am more likely to attack an academic type who is using a bad argument than someone who misspells things. This is because people who debate want to manipulate the way others think about issues and they are the people who feel entitled to lead. Also the standards for what counts as education in the formal sector is low so it might not hurt to encourage internet leaders to be more aware of when they make glaring logical errors, as they can’t expect to get it in school. I know this as I have talked to many privileged people who do not have this skill. Math is less understood than English and relatively few people seem to understand statistics.

    3) I’ve moderated my distrust for bad logic in that I try to ascertain the education and background of the presenter. As someone who is formally trained in logic (economics & math degrees) and grew up around politics, I have developed a grey area method of categorizing logical presenters (i.e. people who are students or mean well), whose arguments I allow to slide. I understand that there is a place in the world for intermediary leaders, it is just I judge the people presenting based on what their claims to leadership are, i.e. how much credit they want to grab. In this regard I would put more scrutiny on Karl Rove than your average spoiled largely confused student.

    Cheers. I hope this gives you a new prospective for your debate. :-)

  15. December 13, 2012 2:20 pm

    Thank you for continuing to write on this. It’s a topic I’m very interested. I write closed captions for a living, and there’s a lot of discussion in our office on how to represent the words of someone who speaks “incorrectly” in a way that is clear to a deaf viewer. (For instance, we don’t use “wanna” or “kinda” because, to someone who’s never heard the similarity between those conjunctions and the phrases they represent, it might not be clear that the symbols “k i n d o f” mean the same thing as “k i n d a.”)

    ANYWAY, I also wanted to share an anecdote. A friend of mine was a teacher in Brownsville, Texas. Many of his students experienced one or more of the list of problems you gave in your first post: difficult home lives, ESL, etc. One day, my friend left the room to get something, and on the way back, he heard the kids making fun of the way he talks (i.e. imitating his “proper” English.) When he walked in, instead of scolding the kids, he said, “This is great,” and went on to explain how he’s not trying to change the way they talk; instead, he’s trying to teach them how to imitate him in situations where that might be beneficial to them.

  16. December 13, 2012 4:14 pm

    Is communication a privilege? Is correction a privilege? Is rejection of correction a rejection of privilege?

    • December 14, 2012 11:38 am

      Well, another word for privilege is ‘advantage’. Is communication an advantage? Being able to communicate well is an advantage, yes. Is correction an advantage? I’m not sure what that would mean. Nobody here is rejecting correction in appropriate contexts.

      This is a link I find useful when discussing privilege: http://brown-betty.livejournal.com/305643.html

      Privilege isn’t a bad thing; it’s good, and we want everyone to have it. People who have it aren’t bad people; they’re fortunate, but they’re sometimes not aware that they have it, or that others don’t. Awareness is the first step to righting the imbalance.

  17. December 13, 2012 5:00 pm

    Thank you for your humane and wise thoughts about needless grammar correction.

  18. December 13, 2012 7:37 pm

    Chandra. Well written articles that have made me think and question my own behaviour and attitudes. (Though I balked at your redhead comment. I don’t think minority groups such as redheads should be entitled to make jokes about their group – otherwise you are saying there are jokes that some people can make and others can’t… and then we are back to privilege! Oh, and “Only a ginger can call another ginger ginger” so I too can comment on this).

    Its sounds as if you are heading towards something I like to call “The Prime Directive” (yes, I’m borrowing shamelessly from Star Trek”. As an atheist, I’ve come realize there are really no truths. But something I think comes as close to a truth as I can find is this: “suffering is a bad thing” – for anyone or anything pretty much.

    Hence The Prime Directive. The only rule I think we should all apply to life: “Minimise suffering”.

    And I think you’ve helped me in this goal.

    Cheers

    • December 13, 2012 9:03 pm

      As a college-level teacher of English, I long ago got tired of people who learned of my line of work then saying they needed to be careful of the way they speak. I often reply that, if I’m any good at what I do, I should be able to understand what they say however they say it. Yes, I know that’s overstated, but it generally eases the fear of being corrected. I tend to play with the multiple meanings of words, phrases, and sentences, but I never was much into correcting grammar or having mine corrected.

      By the way, just the other day, I ran the first few hundred words of a novel I’ve written through a Fog analyzer. It doesn’t check for grammar but for clarity and simplicity. Perhaps I should rewrite the novel, translating it into easier English. Nah. Ain’t gonna do it.

    • December 14, 2012 9:00 am

      I am glad somebody else noticed the redhead thing too. I am not a redhead but it surprised me to see an article so focused on privilege and treating people well finish off with “Well, people that look like this are bad in this way” comment. Granted the author was making fun of herself too but I don’t think that mocking a group is aokay just because you are in that group. Clearly it is a fairly small thing, but it stood out to me considering how the rest of the piece was written.

      • December 31, 2012 5:23 am

        Yes, in fact I didn’t realise the author was a redhead at all. To me it just looked like a casual dig at redheads, which is all too common. Hardly anyone seems to notice or care about this sort of discrimination. Sure, it’s not as bad or as systematic as other forms of discrimination (e.g., anti-semitism, homophobia, etc.), but that hardly excuses it. I read a news article a few years ago about a British man who was bashed to death because of his red hair. Cold comfort to his family that anti-redhead discrimination is not as widespread or as historically established as other forms of discrimination. And what about kids who get bullied every day because of their hair colour? Cold comfort to them that it’s technically not racism, or that other groups have historically had it worse. Just something to think about.

  19. December 13, 2012 10:57 pm

    I grew up in southern England until the age of 13, and then migrated with my family to Australia. A recurring theme on English talk shows [Graham Norton, Alan Carr, QI, Have I Got News For You] is the concept of ‘poshness’, by which the English mean a high-status accent, often one associated with expensive English private schools. [I mean it; the topic comes up at least once a fortnight--it's an obsession]. So, for example, Bear Grylls has a posh accent, so does Miranda Hart, so also do Hugh Grant and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, had elocution lessons to rid him of his provincial accent. Having the right accent and using the right words = ‘class’. It was not just Professor Henry Higgins who had an ear for accents; most English people can tell within ten seconds where you grew up, and will judge you accordingly.
    Not so in Australia, where regional language differences are slight and considered unimportant. Australians have no ear for accents, and frequently mistake Scottish people for Irish and vice-versa, South Africans may be asked which part of England they come from, and only the flatter vowels of New Zealanders excite any comment [I bought sex beers']. It was the English actress Enid Lorimer, who lived in Sydney for many years, who famously said: “The English invented the word snob, and most Australians have no idea what it means”. We do have grammar nazis, but they have to come out at night for fear of ridicule.

  20. Robin Breyer permalink
    December 14, 2012 7:53 am

    Chandra, you are so right on so many levels. As a writer, I carefully go back over my work and edit, but when posting online, be it here, facebook, a forum, it is often the rough draft that goes out and it is amazing how people latch on to the little mistakes. It’s sad really. But along the same lines, I recently went to a forum where I was using correct industry terms, but the forum masters, for some inexplicable reason, were being prescriptive with those very terms and were redefining what they mean. I got called on it and the situation became so oppressive that I have not gone back. It is easy to offend people when you THINK you are right and you can really do some damage emotionally. I’m tough and can take it, but there are some out there who can’t.

  21. December 14, 2012 2:12 pm

    I’m an editor and a literacy specialist, so I LOVED your literacy privilege series and 100% agreed with your points. I shared it with all of my colleagues. I agree that grammar is important, but language is inherently oppressive, and to me, expression itself is often more valuable than the means of expression. You argued that so well. Thank you so much for these essays!

    On another note, I tried to email you but couldn’t find any of your contact info–I saw your reply to another commenter about not having some of your work published. I edit a women’s magazine, Wildflower, and would love to publish some of your essays, if you’re willing and/or interested. Feel free to send me an email at wildflower.magazine@gmail.com.

    • Ellen Akins permalink
      December 23, 2012 10:26 pm

      Language is inherently oppressive?

  22. nezumi permalink
    December 14, 2012 3:10 pm

    I think this post should have gone first. The message of “don’t be mean to people” is reasonable and fair, regardless of the setting. The message I got from the first one, “don’t correct peoples’ grammar, because perhaps they have a disability and your correction will cause grave insult, and they will die” does not seem nearly as strong.

    Perhaps because my background is Computer Science, I would say the primary value of language is communication. My work and hobbies have me reading messages from both techies and young people, and both groups regularly send me messages that are missing words, exchanging words, include mysterious, floating clauses, and otherwise fail to communicate. I return these messages, with questions or corrections, because that is the job I am paid for, and because malformed messages which fail to communicate their intent, or communicate the wrong intent, aren’t very useful. This is true whether the sender is a PhD or a kindergartener. While I may be more gentle when responding to a kindergartener (or the Director), requiring functional grammar isn’t a question of privilege, it’s basically what defines it as communication.

    Language also communicates implied messages. I require my children to enunciate their g’s and use ‘I’ and ‘me’ properly for the same reason I don’t let them go to school in stained shirts and torn pants. Their language (and dress) establishes an image, and if I care about these tiny people, I will work with them to help them establish the image that will help them most in their career. Were I to permit them to do otherwise, I would be doing them a disservice. When they apply to jobs, I doubt the HR person will give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re dyslexic or are under-priviliged. My children (and the people you work with) need to be prepared for that.

    Yes, when I’m on forums online, I almost never highlight spelling (and as an aside, your example in the previous post is a poor one; you intentionally created superficial errors, leaving the meaning of the sentence perfectly clear. People who have that many errors and aren’t typing on a phone generally use a syntax as twisted as the words. The result is extremely difficult to understand.) For a large chunk of Internet denizens, English is a second or third language. Compare their English to my Spanish, and I certainly have no right to complain. But when a user consistently posts twisted syntax and garbled words, eventually I just stop reading their posts. It’s not fun for me to decrypt every message you send, whether the cause is dyslexia or laziness. I may be a villain for that, but I know I’m not alone. Unfortunately, if you have a disability, you come to a point where you just have to spend that extra time to double- or triple-check what you wrote, or use some form of assistive technology. On the Internet, what (and how) you write is the only representation you have, and you can’t expect your reader to be able to decrypt it for you. I don’t know what else to say there; if I can’t understand what you wrote, I can’t understand what you wrote, and no amount of compassion will change that.

    Anyway, thank you for a thought-provoking post.

  23. Lauren permalink
    December 17, 2012 9:51 pm

    Thank you for this series of articles! My family is constantly correcting each other’s grammar, which we do in a humorous way, but I appreciate this insight into the limits on that correction. I interact with a lot of international students, and so hear a lot of “incorrect” grammar, but it is remarkable how well you can understand people even when they use the wrong words/tenses/constructions. Thank you for this call to acceptance of English in its many forms and general compassion for people.

  24. GaryW permalink
    December 21, 2012 11:32 am

    This is a terrific series of articles. Thanks for opening my eyes to unexamined privilege. As a recovering grammar-correcter, I offer this thought:

    I’m actually reminded of Dolores Umbridge. No one wants to be Dolores Umbridge. When she’s being a horrible racist jerk to Hagrid what does she do? She mocks his speech and dialect! She feigns being unable to understand him.

    I don’t want to be Dolores Umbridge.

  25. Robin permalink
    December 29, 2012 7:07 pm

    I take issue with the concept of “a higher standard” in point #2. What if lots of journalists used self-consistent but less priveleged dialects? I think that would be rad. (Not just for lulz, but if that was the writer’s dialect.)

    • December 30, 2012 12:10 pm

      The higher standard I refer to is more to do with the “self-consistent” part – it’s generally reasonable for people to expect professionally-edited, published writing to conform to the norms of whatever dialect or register it is written in (or at least, the norms that aren’t in constant dispute).

      There are published works that have been written in low-prestige dialects, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head – mostly novels or other works that are allowed more creativity than journalistic pieces. With journalism the idea is usually to transmit information as clearly as possible to the largest possible audience, so it makes sense to use the most widely-recognized standard dialect. I find it, unfortunately, difficult to imagine a scenario where news pieces written in low-prestige dialects would be viewed as anything other than parodies at worst, or pieces written to appeal to a small niche audience at best. If relative prestige were not an issue… but then we’d be getting into linguistic-utopia territory, wouldn’t we? :)

      • Robin permalink
        December 30, 2012 12:18 pm

        It would definitely be like parody if it wasn’t the writer’s own dialect. But surely urban Black America, for example, isn’t a small niche audience.

        ps – An example in the category you’re looking for could be *Trainspotting*.

  26. wow I live in a society permalink
    January 4, 2013 12:42 am

    Ok, so if your argument is actually worth anything, why don’t you construct your own system of spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. and use that to communicate with us.

    The entire point of language is communication with other people. So there’s a point in getting everybody to agree to a system of communication, a language,to enable us to talk to each other. That should be self evident, so sorry if this is coming off as intelligence insulting.

    • January 4, 2013 7:54 am

      “The entire point of language is communication with other people. So there’s a point in getting everybody to agree to a system of communication, a language,to enable us to talk to each other.” — If you think that anything I wrote here contradicts this, you did not understand what I was saying.

  27. John Babcock permalink
    January 7, 2013 11:28 am

    I am saddened to realize I am a grammar snob. I shall endeavor to be more tolerant of others. Nevertheless, it makes my hackles rose when people use affected language because they believe others expect it of them. My family and I went to a restaurant in Dallas where the hostess said, “I hope y’all enjoy y’alls dinner” simply because it was a Texas-themed restaurant. People don’t really talk that way
    best regards, jtm011944@gmail.com

    • Jesie permalink
      July 15, 2013 11:11 am

      John, I hear similar phrases used frequently here in Alabama. Usually from female speakers.

  28. January 7, 2013 2:38 pm

    I teach writing to homeschoolers, and write myself, and am definitely a grammar nerd but not much of a grammar snob. A couple of things that push me away from snobbery are:

    Most of the growth and change in language happens because of teenagers, cultural intersections, and new technology, not from uber-educated standard English speakers. So super-literate folks are actually behind the curve in some ways.

    Rules are made to be broken. Most great literature is full of non-standard usage.

    Writing is an attempt at communication. Good spelling and grammar help, like legible handwriting. But an equal part of communication is good listening, which really means finding our common humanity. Snobbery is a step in the other direction.

    And anyways, misusage gives us so many hilarious sentences, like the sign I read in an outhouse about how the “affluent had to be pumped out by hand.”

    I still think literacy is super important. But so is kindness.

  29. Kate permalink
    January 7, 2013 5:56 pm

    This is a very interesting and eye opening set of blogs and comments. I’m shocked at the statistic, I had no idea. I know I am pretty average in the areas of good grammar and spelling. Thank whom-ever for Spellcheck. I am aware of some snobbery of my own, especially in dealing with local people of my own class and education who can’t remember how to use too or to correctly. Or whether or weather, say or said, there or their. I don’t correct them but I do have to guard against my internal prejudice that not knowing these language basics means they are both uneducated and stupid. Or had a crappy education. But regardless of my own failings, my mother still corrects me in person and emails me when I misplace a comma or apostrophe on my own blog. Since I’m 52 I don’t really care anymore if I’m perfect or not but I don’t have to deal with any of the difficulties that a really illiterate person has to face. I do think its an illustration of how far our educational system has slipped from the 50’s, and we better start paying attention to this or the country as a whole is going to be in big trouble. The movement to the computer and internet is no excuse for lousy basic spelling and grammar and actually making mistakes while using computer is truly lame as so many software applications have correction tools built in. I’ve enjoyed reading this exchange and will come back to see what’s new in the future. Cheers!

  30. January 17, 2013 9:00 am

    Chandra –
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. A professor friend of mine shared this on FB, and I immediately shared with my friends and colleagues. I work as an advisor and adjunct instructor at an urban open-door community college, and much of what you say is spot-on.

    For me, these issues speak to a larger concern… mainly, if a very large percentage of our students have significant challenges with literacy, how can we reasonably expect them to succeed in their early semesters of post-secondary education? Online admissions, online financial aid applications, college policies and documents that demand a decent mastery of the english language…. and a broad swatch of educated professionals that harbor resentment towards these students (for a variety of reasons)…. the deck is stacked against anyone who is not prepared to acknowledge their own reading “deficiencies” and ask for help. And, even in the case where they DO ask for help, chances are slim they will meet someone who is able to assist in a nonjudgmental way.

    And we have not even addressed the fact that educational institutions EVERYWHERE are facing shrinking budgets and tend to act on the premise that relying on technology can ease staffing needs.

    Again – thank you for sharing your thoughts. These are discussions that need to be had.

  31. evewc18 permalink
    March 11, 2013 4:46 pm

    I’ve taught ESL for nine years, and I always tell my students that meaning is the most important thing; the rest will come in time. My students taught me not to automatically penalize them for writing “non-standard” English because it suppresses their voice. Love the subject, love the posts, love the blog. Keep it up.

  32. Neka permalink
    March 16, 2013 9:25 am

    I think a simple compromise is to send a personal message (e.g. email) to the writer/poster someone cares to correct.
    Because:
    1) If you’re not sure that the method/way in which you are correcting them is appropriate/polite/etc. but you do have good intentions, that way you get to help the writer and avoid a blow up (it’d be easier to explain your intentions via a personal message also, especially if they rebuttal you solely due to confusion of intentions).
    2) The other benefit is that others won’t follow suit, diverging from the topic, and adding unnecessary negativity to the topic.
    I understand that not all forums have the option of reaching a writer/poster with a personal message. But in those cases I would urge people to be doubly careful about how they present their helpful, well-intentioned corrections – and even before that, that they consider whether it’s really necessary to do so (like Chandra wrote – mistakes are not the end of the world). Which bring me to:
    3) By aiming to only respond via personal message, it can help you take the necessary step back to think about what you’re about to do – whether it’s worth it; whether you’re doing it for positive reasons; whether you’re using it as an extra stab at someone just because you disagree with their ideas, which would make your argument weaker.

    I hope someone takes up this suggestion :)

    Also, as an aside, I wanted to thank Chandra for her Literacy posts because they have opened me up to a form of oppression I had never considered. I’ve always found grammar correction posts in bad taste and never corrected anyone who wasn’t a friend (though now I’ll make sure each one of them feel comfortable about it), but I thought of it more as people being douchy rather than elitist, and never as an oppressive status quo. People in privilege seem to often need a helping hand in seeing their unintended oppressive roles (or actions) because those power dynamics are lost upon them since their position becomes dominant & becomes the norm. So thank you for this enlightenment (:

    • April 28, 2013 9:07 am

      Great contribution. Any means to make the immediate gesture that you’re not out to insult or embarrass, and you’ve set up a constructive exchange.

  33. April 28, 2013 9:04 am

    Splendid set of articles. Certainly had – still has – me thinking. Prescriptivism, smugness and ad hominem couldn’t be less obnoxious; but I rate a good put-down has it’s place for those ‘off on one’, and in many contexts (not often on the internet, it’s fair to say), to suggest improvement with respect and humour is definitely good thing.
    When people can’t take polite constructive criticism, the immediate need is to help them with that non-trivial emotional problem. We can’t repress standards just to comfort (for want of a better term) the lowest common denominator. As with most faculties and social matters, there’s a delicate juggling exercise between pushing forward our standards and keeping everyone on board.
    Anyhow, I’m rambling; I’m sure you already know this as a teacher, but in summary: There’s putting people down and there’s lifting them up – Only (but please do) go there if the latter is sincere and realistic.
    Adam.

  34. October 16, 2013 4:05 pm

    Thanks for these posts. I grew up with the sense of elitism that you’re critiquing – not that my own grammar was really any good – and it’s rare to see someone breaking it down carefully. I think the long list in your first post is very useful – attempts to call out privilege and oppression are often not tied to tangible day-to-day issues in that way.

  35. January 16, 2014 2:31 pm

    Chandra, this is a lovely summation of an appropriately respectful attitude towards communication. Thanks for posting it.

  36. June 11, 2014 10:39 pm

    Hello there! This post couldn’t be written much better!
    Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept talking about this. I’ll send this post to him.
    Pretty sure he’s going to have a good read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

  37. September 15, 2014 2:56 am

    I mentioned your post in a blog I just did – please let me know if you’d like the mention removed (there must be a method of messaging you directly rather than publicly and I’ll work on discovering that – but I don’t know wordpress that well yet) http://sesspool.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/sapio-sundays-grammar-policing-bad-cop-no-donut/

    • September 15, 2014 9:04 am

      Hi Juana – Thanks for the mention. No need at all to remove it. I’m not aware of any other method for contacting other bloggers either – if you find out please let me know! I really enjoy what I’ve read of your blog so far, by the way.

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