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