I love grammar as much as the next person. I can tell you the difference between a hyphen and an em dash, point out your dangling participles and misplaced modifiers, and explain to you the difference between a restrictive and a nonrestrictive clause. On some deep level, I am saddened by the passing of the word “whom” and annoyed by people who think the Oxford comma is optional. However, in the end, I really don’t care if someone’s grammar is perfect or not–and society shouldn’t, either.
Despite the preference of employers and, if Internet headlines can be trusted, potential dates, for people who can write “proper English,” the reality is that what we know as standard English is only one version of the many English dialects currently in use. Most of us probably use more than one dialect and it’s not immediately evident that standard English is superior to the others.
Of course, I don’t think anyone doubts that it’s useful to have rules to try to ensure clarity and fewer miscommunication. Perhaps you’ve seen the alleged inscription “I’d like to dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” illustrating the usefulness of the Oxford comma. Or maybe a professor has asked your class to punctuate “A woman without her man is nothing,” leading some to write “A woman: without her, man is nothing” and others to respond “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” Oh, the power of punctuation to create meaning! And yet, we usually manage to communicate clearly even when we don’t understand the nuances between a colon and a dash, or have never heard of an Oxford comma.
There is now a false idea that a person is somehow less intelligence if he or she is less than fluent with in standard English. But the insistence on facility with standard English has often been used to marginalize certain groups of society who may use other English dialects or speak English as a second language. That is, the idea that standard English is the only English or the standard against which a person’s intelligence is measured has tones of racism, classism, and sexism. Think of the people whose English has been condemned–peoples of color, people of a lower socioeconomic status, and sometimes women and teenage girls (you know, the ones who say “just” or “like”).
But different dialects have their own rules and nuances, and they are valid languages. Think about the dialects you yourself use. Do you talk to your parents or teachers or employers the same way you speak to your peers? Do you speak at school the way you speak at home? Probably you don’t and are thus are engaging in code switching–a valuable skill that shows you implicitly understand how to modify your communication style for the best results, whether that means being accepted into a cool group or getting the job. Even if someone doesn’t know what the subjunctive mood is, that does not mean they don’t know how to communicate well or that they lack intelligence.
Furthermore, languages change. Someone may not like the quotative like (“And she was like ‘ew! no!'”), but it performs certain work that a sentence such as “And she replied, ‘No, I don’t care for the snails'” does not as it allows the speaker to suggest or perform feeling. Its usefulness means it probably won’t be going away soon. But take heart. Back in the day, people probably saw the change from Middle English to modern English as the end of society, too–but we’re all still here.
Finally, in the age of the Internet, we don’t know what a writer’s first or second language is. If someone learned English as a second language and is using it to communicate with others, we should be recognizing their effort, their skill, and their confidence, even if their prepositions aren’t quite right or their commas are in unexpected places.
It is far more important to me that someone is taking the chance to reach out, to communicate, to say something that they find worthwhile, than it is to me whether or not their punctuation is in the right spot or if they accidentally missed a typo when proofreading their work. We can love grammar. I do love grammar. But let’s not shame those people who aren’t intrigued by the nuances of a semi-colon or in love with a smartly-placed comma. They’re worth listening to, too.
Fun Fact since we’re currently holding our American Civil War Event: Stephen Crane, now a classic author celebrated as a realist or naturalist, was notorious for his bad grammar!