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Literacy Privilege, Part 2: But Wait… You’re an English Teacher

December 2, 2012

So, wow. Apparently people have a lot of feelings about grammar.

I felt that I should address a point several people have brought up, which basically goes something like this: Hey, you correct people’s writing for a living. Doesn’t that make you a massive hypocrite? Well, it’s possible (I actually think it’s impossible to get through life as a conscientious person without being at least somewhat hypocritical, but that’s a topic for a future post). But I don’t really think so in this case.

I absolutely do believe there is a time and place to teach people about grammar and spelling – I should hope so, otherwise I’d have to fire myself, and that would suck because I really love my job. It is entirely possible for me to take a neutral, non-judgemental view of language and yet still realize that my students will benefit most from learning widely-accepted conventions that will give them the best chance at success in our society.

I talk openly to my students about these ideas. We discuss registers and dialects, and the difference between spoken and written English. I minimize the emphasis on right vs. wrong, and instead present grammar and spelling lessons as communication tools within the context of our society’s power structures. That sounds like a lot of academic blather, so here’s an example.

What I don’t say: “The following sentence is wrong: At my last job, I had less customer complaints than the average employee. Find the error and correct it.”

What I do say: “Employers will judge cover letters not just on content, but on form. Even if you have strong work skills, some employers won’t bother to read a résumé if they see non-standard grammar in the cover letter. Let’s look at a few examples of common structures that you will hear and see often, but that can cause you problems if you use them in formal writing.”

Now, you might have additional feelings about the whole debate regarding whether it is right or wrong to talk about things being right or wrong. That is probably a debate worth having. But keep in mind that my students are often people who have heard all their lives that they are wrong, wrong, wrong, lazy, stupid, dumb, useless, unteachable, and wrong. I am not going to push that thorn in any further.

But what about outside the classroom? Isn’t people’s writing fair game when they put it out there for everyone to read? Isn’t it better to try to help them improve by letting them know when they’re making mistakes? By way of response, let me take you through a scenario.

In my class there is a woman in her sixties who has hardly ever touched a computer. She is there partly to improve her writing skills so that she can exchange e-mails with her grandchildren. She is also interested in gardening. After a few weeks in class, when she feels she has built up her confidence enough to try, we get her logged in and on her way. We agree that signing up on a gardening forum might be another fun way for her to practice her new skills. She makes an account, logs in and spends twenty minutes carefully labouring over a question to post; meanwhile, I have stepped away to help another student. The next day there are three replies. The student’s question contains two spelling errors, and all three replies are subtly snarky, “helpful” references to these errors. She closes the window, logs off and never goes near a computer again. The confidence gained in the past few weeks is erased in an instant.

(Note that although I have altered a few details to protect students’ identities, this scenario is a composite of real people and events.)

I’m not going to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do when you encounter non-standard language Out There. I can only share my experiences and the conclusions I’ve drawn from them. There are probably situations where it’s appropriate to let someone know, for example, that their* meaning isn’t clear, or they’ve made an unintentionally embarrassing pun. The important thing, in my mind, is the intent: Is this about reaching out with sincerity to help someone? Or is it about showing off superior knowledge, silencing someone, or taking a cheap shot for laughs?

As I see it, the latter options are where we start getting into this elitism business. Several people have questioned me on the idea of dialect-dominance as oppression. I will admit that this was an idea I had never considered before I stumbled across the article I linked to – and I’m open to hearing (respectful, civil) opposing viewpoints. I don’t think high-prestige dialects are inherently oppressive, nor do I wish to bash on everyone who uses them (hello; I am using one right now). But I certainly see how they can be used as yet another subtle means of withholding power and influence from certain groups of people.

*Yes, their. This is a variant whose increasingly widespread acceptance I welcome with open arms. Good riddance to ‘his/her’!

  1. December 3, 2012 8:58 pm

    Thank you for such thoughtful posts. In my line of work, I have had the opportunity to judge essays for scholarship contests, and too often in the past I have approached them ready to mercilessly deduct points for poor spelling and grammar. I probably will still consider grammar as part of the judging process since the essays are essentially written in hopes of winning money, but this has made me think twice about my approach.

    • December 4, 2012 8:03 am

      Certainly a formal essay is one of the places where most people reasonably expect to see standard language used. Personally, if I were charged with such a task, I would try to take into account who the students are, what the purpose of the essay is, and what the scholarship is intended for (which I’m sure you do). From there, I would decide how much weight to give to standard grammar in my marking.

    • December 11, 2012 11:52 am

      I agree… this is a very thoughtful post. Also off-topic: I’m very excited to see another Sumiko! My mom named me after her friend from High School and I’ve never met anyone with my name (although I knew a guy whose grandma was a Sumiko).

  2. loqk permalink
    December 3, 2012 11:18 pm

    we need more personal pronouns. instead of having to use he or she, i suggest using a new word: thay.

    they still seems to be an uncomfortable fit as it has a strong indication of many associated with it.

    although, any suggestions such as a better word, or “just get more comfortable with they” could be useful :-)

    • December 4, 2012 8:00 am

      I support singular ‘they’ mainly because it’s been around for centuries, and also because it’s the most likely candidate to succeed. It’s very difficult to get people to accept new pronouns.

      • December 5, 2012 8:58 am

        It is definitely hard to get people to accept new pronouns – which is why I love “Thon”!

        It’s a pleasure to use both when you mentally expand it to “that one”, and when you mentally treat it as a noun.

      • December 13, 2012 9:39 am

        I just use “she”, because objectively it’s the generic gender (parthenogenesis etc.) and because it often makes me sound sassy.

      • January 2, 2013 10:14 pm

        I’m a huge fan of the singular gender-neutral “their.” If it was good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, it’s OK by me.

      • Alexis permalink
        March 16, 2013 9:01 pm

        Here’s an interesting case of ‘yo’ spontaneously emerging (seemingly) as a gender-neutral pronoun. I’m not advocating for it’s becoming standard, but I think it’s cool to see it emerge like this.

      • March 21, 2013 9:13 am

        Finally had the chance to read that article thoroughly – fascinating! Thanks for the link. It’s amazing what happens to language in the hands (or the mouths, I suppose) of children.

  3. December 4, 2012 1:53 pm

    Do you think that ‘laziness’ ever plays a role in this, though? Sure, a subset of people are marginalized.

    However, as someone who is responsible for editing a LOT of content for professional consumption on a daily basis, I’m appalled by the carelessness and laziness displayed by people who you would classify as privileged, educated and literate. A lot of them simply cannot be bothered to spell or punctuate according to standard rules.

    This is a pretty good test for me – if you get it consistently wrong, you are probably lacking in some kind of education or experience. If you get it inconsistently wrong – for example, you sometimes use apostrophes right and sometimes use them wrong – you are probably just lazy.

    • December 4, 2012 2:35 pm

      Every time I try to formulate a reply to this comment, I end up with six paragraphs’ worth of things to say. I think I’ll write a longer post about the concept of laziness at some point. So first of all, thank you for the inspiration! And second, my short answer would be that laziness may sometimes play a role, but my feeling is that much of the time, what people perceive as being due to laziness is actually due to a whole bunch of other factors.

    • Timfc permalink
      December 14, 2012 8:47 am

      As someone who is both highly educated and has, at best, highly idiosyncratic grammar, I can assure you that I had years of diagramming sentences and ‘determining what part of the following sentence is incorrect’ type activities. I’ve read texts on the use of commas, colons, semi-colons, … Generally, the rules stick for a few weeks and then start to wander off into the ether in a piecemeal sort of way. Meaning, it’s highly likely that if you were to read a paper that I wrote you’d find that I end up using/misusing the same punctuation mark in a lot of different ways. For me, grammar rules are essentially arbitrary collections, I see no pattern, I do not intuit them from text, and the 5 years of education on grammar that I got from 5th-9th grade had no effect.

      Maybe it means that I’m lazy, if only I was to re-read those grammar texts every couple weeks about each and every punctuation mark, I would have better writing mechanics. It’s probably true. On the other hand, I’ve got stuff to do that already takes 60-80 hours a week and I can afford to pay someone else to proof-read my papers before I send them for publication.

      Then again, math, for me, is easy as pie. Yet, I don’t assume that someone who haphazardly arrives at correct answers is lazy. I assume that it’s frikkin hard and that instruction is poor and that not everyone’s brain works like mine. I’m guessing, based on the fact that a lot of people seem to have questionable grammar, that it’s probably not laziness for them either. But, I’m not up in their heads, so I can’t really be sure…

  4. Mistie permalink
    December 5, 2012 10:57 am

    I am a high school and middle school English teacher, and your two posts on Literacy Privilege have been excellent reads. I discuss this issue with my students often. These are students from upper-middle class homes. Some of the time, they don’t recognize the snobbery riddling their comments. I would love to hear your take on the term “standard English.”

  5. December 5, 2012 12:16 pm

    Thank you for both part 1 and part 2. You have really opened my eyes to my own literacy privilege. I am now a “recovering grammar nazi”, too.

  6. Jeff Nguyen permalink
    December 6, 2012 5:53 pm

    Language plays a crucial role in a culture by conveying meaning through symbols and the spoken or written word. Language also holds the key to decoding the hidden messages of the dominant culture, which teachers are the gatekeepers to whether they realize it or not.

  7. twigarms permalink
    December 9, 2012 11:44 am

    I sometimes correct people over the internet if they’ve confused its/it’s or your/you’re, but I always make sure I do it in a polite way. The reason I do this is because I would want to be corrected if I had made an error (and by “error” I mean something that makes the meaning of someone’s writing harder to understand), but I obviously also like to be treated with respect. I think of it as sharing knowledge, and the recipient can choose to do with it what they will. I think that the presentation of information is often equally important to the content.

  8. Foreign permalink
    December 10, 2012 9:31 am

    Well, this is sad. I can’t find what’s wrong with “At my last job, I had less customer complaints than the average employee”. :-S

    Chandra, thanks for directing me to this other entry in your blog. You are still not addressing the issue about errors on publications or signage, especially where an editor is involved. I realize it doesn’t refer to the specific population you’re writing about. What are your thoughts on that? Is that acceptable? Of course, I still don’t think that’s any reason for mockery, but I do believe that it’s pretty important to correct those errors.

    • December 10, 2012 10:01 am

      Hi – I did address these additional issues in my third post (which I don’t think I had posted yet when I replied to your other comment). Yes, there are times when it’s appropriate for corrections to be made in these contexts, but, as you say, there’s no need for mockery.

      Re. “Less customer complaints” – this is one of those grammar points that is currently in transition. You will hear and see the word ‘less’ used this way all the time in speech and informal writing. But in formal writing, many people view this as incorrect. The standard form in this case would be “I had fewer complaints than the average employee”. The commonly accepted rule is to use ‘less’ with non-count nouns and ‘fewer’ with count nouns. However, ‘less’ is becoming so common in the latter context that it will likely work its way into the formal canon as well in several decades’ time.

      • Foreign permalink
        December 10, 2012 12:24 pm

        Thanks for the reply and explanation, Chandra! I kept reading the phrase and thinking that it wasn’t how I would say it, but wasn’t quite sure why. This, I think, is another perfect example of why it’s better to have good English in written form. After being used the “wrong” way for a while, you start wondering whether it’s right or wrong. I do understand that languages evolve, but how far do we want to go? Here are a few examples that come to mind:
        – You see the word “canceled” spelled with 2 Ls all over the place, including the airport. Personaly, that boders me as mach as seing words speled like dis. I see that the auto-correct is not even marking “cancelled” as bad spelling anymore! Why? I’m sure there is an explanation for the word to be spelled with one L. There area rules for a reason, be it consistency, learning, etc.
        – Speaking of non-count and count nouns… I grew up learning that you get “a pair of scissors” and “a cup of coffee”. Today, you use scissors and order **a** coffee. Sounds very anachronistic, but it makes sense. It also makes sense to shorten the phrase, I guess.
        – People say “loan” instead of “borrow” or “lend”. I can’t help cringing every time I hear that–still, I correct no one but my husband. So, is this accepted in American English now? Is this something that an English-speaking person from another country will understand? To me, “I will loan you a book” makes as much sense as “I will eat the baby some food”. Am I alone here?

        Thanks again, Chandra, for starting these great conversations!
        Can’t wait to read part 3…

    • December 12, 2012 5:29 pm

      In response to your comments on “cancelled”, I found the following: I don’t know where you are from, but “canceled” is standard in American English, while “cancelled” is the preferred spelling in Canada, the UK, and Australia. Depending on what country you are in and which airline you are flying, that may explain the discrepancy of spellings you have seen in airports.

      • December 13, 2012 4:08 am

        Another poster (probably also an American) criticised “judgement”. To me, “canceled” looks wrong, but I accept that people in the US spell it that way.

  9. Foreign permalink
    December 10, 2012 2:16 pm

    “effect” vs “affect”… just came across this one…

    • promethics permalink
      December 11, 2012 10:43 am

      This is actually an area where I think that a certain amount of grammar policing may be warranted. Incorrect homonyms can utterly change the meaning of a sentence in ways where it may not be clear that the meaning has changed, e.g. “Thousands of people have signed a petition asking the Governor to make the state succeed.” vs “Thousands of people have signed a petition asking the Governor to make the state secede.” I do try to be polite in my requests for clarification in these cases, but I can’t avoid a certain amount of pedantry.

  10. Jasmin S. permalink
    December 11, 2012 9:28 am

    Hi Chandra,

    Thanks for writing such insightful posts on this subject. It really is so easy to forget how many things we take for granted everyday and how hurtful words can be. I wanted to know what ever happened with your student who was interested in gardening? I know that you altered some details to protect the identities of your students, but I wanted to find out if she was able to rebuild her confidence and try again after the incident.

    • December 12, 2012 6:52 pm

      That anecdote was a composite of a number of different students, but the student it was mainly describing did push ahead with the class and made some improvements, although not on the computer. Confidence is a tricky thing, and some students have disappeared even after making great strides (although sometimes due to life circumstances rather than giving up). Most stick it out, though. I’d say that half the challenge in my job is getting people to believe they are actually able to learn.

  11. December 12, 2012 12:55 pm

    Thank you for writing these posts. I am a stickler for grammar but I’m also a literacy and ESL teacher. There is time and place for learning and it’s rarely when someone simply tells you you’re wrong.
    I’m in New Mexico where literacy is a major issue; 20% of New Mexicans age 16 and older have literacy skills at level 1 (not including people who speak only Spanish who are learning English (and often English language learners are not literate in their native language!), the lowest level on a scale of 1 to 5. Most jobs (64%) require literacy skills at level 2. 46% of New Mexico’s population is at this level or below. 46%!!!

    Not many people are aware of how lucky they are if they can read and write. Your posts have brought that to the forefront of conversation, a conversation I really think people need to have.

    Literacy isn’t the only issue. General, basic education is also a privilege. There are about 2 million people in New Mexico and 400,000 adults in New Mexico do not have a high school diploma, GED, and/or English language skills. Adult education programs here (GED, ESL, other remedial classes) currently reach only 5% of those in need.
    Consider that and the fact that nearly 63% of those 2 million people have access to the internet. That’s a perfect condition for grammar mistakes.

    Yes, everyone needs to learn. There are many ways to learn but being treated as inferior and dumb is not a motivator.

    Thank you again.

  12. Lisa permalink
    December 12, 2012 2:03 pm

    Excellent. keeping me humbler.

  13. December 13, 2012 9:29 am

    Until now I’ve been in the habit of referring to people who impose artificial, pseudo-Latinate grammar on the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare as “schoolmarms.” Thanks to this statement of common sense from an English teacher, I’ll have to stop doing that.

  14. Dafina Lazarus Stewart permalink
    December 13, 2012 11:07 am

    I really appreciate what you’ve shared here. I agree that there are big differences in philosophy, affect, and denotation between telling someone that this is “right” or “wrong” and telling someone what tools will help them be successful and effective in certain societal forums. I think this is an approach that I tell myself I take with my students (I’m also a faculty member). I think in reality I more often simply cross out and correct “wrong” usage or direct a student to check their APA manual than actually take the time to do what you’ve illustrated here.

  15. Aaron permalink
    December 13, 2012 7:02 pm

    Privileged dialects absolutely can be used as weapons to oppress people. Recall the whole “teaching ebonics” controversy that mostly happened several years ago, most notably in Oakland. First of all, nobody wanted to teach Black Vernacular English as a replacement for Standard American English. The idea was to make sure teachers were knowledgeable about BVE so that they could better understand the challenges that students who speak mostly BVE at home and in the community may face when learning to read and write SAE, and to incorporate this into lesson plans. There even were some readers developed that had SAE texts alongside the same text in BVE to help students learn the differences between the two. It turns out they were HIGHLY EFFECTIVE tools for teaching literacy to students. Nonetheless, people flipped out and progress slowed. So everyone is expected to know Standard American English, yet we as a society won’t allow students who didn’t grown up speaking and hearing SAE to have effective tools for learning it, just those effective tools involve recognizing that other dialects are perfectly valid, worthy, complete, and useful.

  16. Cory permalink
    December 14, 2012 7:57 pm

    Reading is not the most natural thing for a human to do. I say this as I am trying to learn Mandarin Chinese and hence relearning how to read completely. However I have never come across a Chinese person who will spit the dummy at me just for missing a stroke, using a character for a different word that sounds identical, or messing up a grammatical construction that is blatantly obvious to them. It is only in European language cultures where this happens. Most people around the world are just happy to be able to understand someone, but in this saddened western culture we’re not just happy with that (I say this from Australia who have a lot of non standard grammatical constructions). We want perfection for some unknown reason.
    This drive for perfection in something as fluid and non-rigid as language is senseless and cruel. It has been used as a tool of oppression, and will keep on being a tool of oppression unless this culture can learn to bundy up and not give a damn. It’s not fair to many people I know who are dyslexic (really cruel spelling for someone with the condition by the way), because it’s usually not the symbols they are unable to group or make sense of, it’s the entire page. In a dyslexic person’s eyes, the entire page moves, and it astounds me that so many European language (not just English) teachers refuse to see this as a real thing.
    In my personal opinion, language is language, it serves a purpose. So if I can understand you, then great! That is all I need.

    This link gives an example of a low socio-economic accent/dialect in Australia, these people would most likely write how they speak. But I can understand them and that’s all I need.

    Caution: possibility of offensive words.

  17. December 15, 2012 12:51 pm

    Beautiful articles, which I have nothing major to add to. I will say that your use of ‘their’ made me very VERY happy and that’s mostly the reason why I am commenting. I know several people who think using ‘he’ as a ‘universal’ (ahem) pronoun is not sexist or in any way problematic. Thank you!

  18. sarahlizz3 permalink
    December 30, 2012 6:57 am

    Love this article and the previous one. I teach English at the college level, and completely agree that, even as a teacher, one does not need to be rude and condescending about grammar. I took a linguistics and education class some years ago that blew my mind. It explored English (and language, in general) as a growing, living thing, and explored the problems with having one “correct” language/grammar.

    I love to talk to my students about grammar through a more linguistic approach. For example, when we talk about using “they” to mean he/she, we talk about the limitations of English, and how we use “they” because we don’t have an appropriate gender neutral word in the language. Also, some of the “incorrect” grammar today may be completely acceptable in 50 or 100 years, because language is always evolving. We also discuss genre and how the context determines the language that is considered appropriate. So, using “they” instead of he/she is completely appropriate in conversation, a personal email, or a facebook status update, but less so in academic writing.

    I think it’s so much more fun to discuss language this way, and instead of putting emphasis on right/wrong, it puts the student in the role of an owner of language – that they take part in creating language and the evolution of language.

  19. David Casseres permalink
    December 31, 2012 10:09 pm

    This is the best conversation I have run across on the Internet in a long time. Thank you Chandra, my thoughts about English usage are much like yours though I am not yet as disciplined about my peeves as you are. You are making me me rethink them.

  20. jnier permalink
    January 20, 2013 6:53 pm

    Wow. All three of these articles are great. I wish I could’ve read the comments left on the first post before you disabled commenting, as I think the questions addressed in the comments here are great examples of real world conversations people have about language and the more comments the better.

    But I can understand how people can be torn about how to address and think about grammatical issues. Personally, I don’t think we should view all those who are lazy about grammar as dyslexic or underprivileged. Only 10-15% of the population is dyslexic and while many of those who are disadvantaged do not have time to really learn grammar, with the advent of the internet, it’s much easier to educate oneself nowadays than ever before.

    Granted, when one runs out of comebacks, it’s usually both the pettiest and easiest option to turn to critiquing the spelling, phrasing, and structure of another’s posts.

    You’ve made me think and become aware! Thanks!

  21. October 2, 2013 1:00 am

    Wow, I have no idea how I finished reading all this. You’re good at what you want to convey to people. Literacy ( reading, writing, comprehension )has been quite the challenge for me. I just wanted to say thank you for being a teacher! I can only comprehend maybe 70% without a dictionary though. You are on my A-list of reads in future. This is from a dyslexic, a survivor of childhood abuses.Thank You. Keep up your intriguing work.

  22. Washington Irving permalink
    August 21, 2014 11:06 pm

    Fewer customer complaints. I like precision in language. But I also love using sentence fragments. I tend to be very judgmental, not of people who have literacy challenges or who use an alternative vernacular, but of those educated, privileged, perhaps affluent people who don’t see the difference between fewer and less, between your and you’re, and who write “thru”. I have a particular bias against the incorrect use of “I”. As in, “Jeff gave the nachos to Jenny and I.” I have heard university English instructors say things like this and it makes me cringe. And they probably despise my fragments and Southern idioms.


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