→ Alexandra Milne
English is today’s lingua franca and is becoming increasingly standardised as a result. Although this is good news for spelling and grammar purists, for those who are not expert in its use this development may cause exclusion and humiliation. In the corporate and scholarly fields there is no longer any room for error in written correspondence. Spelling and grammar have become tools wielded by the elite to stymie upward mobility and dismiss those considered ‘lower class’. The grammatical elite have become so blinded by their own proficiency that they have mistaken new dialects for grammatical error. They have failed to recognise that language evolves and improves through errors and anomalies, and that deviation from the norm must be allowed for language to grow.
Vernacular to competency stereotyping
The corporate world is difficult to navigate. It is even harder when your resume is tossed aside because of a dangling modifier or an errant apostrophe. Good grammar has become an additional criteria to be hired for a job, even one where writing isn’t a chief responsibility. In an article for the Harvard Business School titled ‘I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar and Here’s Why’, Kyle Wiens argues that poor spelling and grammar indicate laziness, inattention to detail and low intellect. He says that good grammar is credibility, that your writing is a projection of yourself in your physical absence. Although the latter point may be true in that effective communication is important to express yourself, Wien’s ignores factors that impact one’s writing ability such as disability, education, and cultural background.
According to the Australian Dyslexia Association, approximately 10% of the Australian population is affected by dyslexia or a significant learning disability. People with dyslexia have difficulty reading and interpreting words, letters and symbols. Dyslexia is not linked to intelligence or work ethic, but because of attitudes like Wiens’ a person with dyslexia may be unfairly passed over for a job because their use of grammar is less than perfect.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that 46% of inner-regional students do not complete year 12. This percentage becomes higher as you move towards remote areas. Evidence suggests this is because rural and remote students have significantly reduced access to education services when compared with metropolitan students. No matter how hard these students work they will only be as good as the standard of education on offer. If they don’t have access to the facilities to learn correct spelling and grammar they are not given the tools to find meaningful employment.
The problem is even bigger for those for who English is not a first language. English, with its fickle rules and illogical sentence structure, is incredibly difficult to learn, especially since half the time it doesn’t even follow its own rules; ‘i’ goes before ‘e’, except when it’s after ‘c’, and when ‘ei’ makes a long ‘ay’ sound (‘neighbour’ or ‘weigh’), which is when the letters ‘gh’ together are silent. None of these ‘rules’ are consistent with phonetics or the way standardised rules of the language work. It is no coincidence that correct English almost always aligns with the speech of the white, the educated and the wealthy. When someone’s English is imperfect, it is often through no fault of his or her own. To overlook a person for a job because of their inability to conform to the arbitrary and confusing rules of proper English is unfair and prejudicial. It is unfair to stereotype an individual on the basis of their written ability. To do so targets those from disadvantaged communities, for whom upward mobility is difficult to achieve.
Hypocrisy in academia
The realm of academia is equally cutthroat. Writing is a powerful tool and ‘grammar snobs’ wield it with skill. Valid arguments are cut down and ignored because of a misplaced ‘your’ or use of the wrong ‘there’. The invention of the Internet has made matters worse. Debate has become less about content and more a sparring of apostrophes. Grammar gives those who have mastered it a cheap shot even though, according to the International Adult Literacy Survey, nearly half of all North American adults struggle with complex written material. Many struggle with simple things such as emails, letters and utility bills.
This grammatical pedantry hasn’t always been the norm. Classical literature is littered with what would today be considered mistakes, though instead of criticizing the mistakes of past authors, we make excuses for them. Jane Austen frequently employed the use of double negatives. This is justified by saying she was demonstrating the snobbery of her cohort. Charles Dickens was known for his lengthy run-on sentences. This was said to satirisethe rambling speech of the institutions his work criticised.
The authors are excused from their errors because what matters is that their message is understood. It is contradictory that the same rule is not applied universally.
African American Vernacular English
As much as academics hail their power to manipulate words and phrases within the strictures of the system, they overlook the evolutionary steps English has taken, mistaking dialect for improper English. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is an example. In 1996 the Oakland School Board recognised AAVE as it’s own dialect with it’s own unique structure and rules taken from other languages.
If someone used the phrase ‘I ain’t got none’ they would be dismissed in a frenzyof grammatical correctness (with an undercurrent of racism and classism). But languages other than English follow different rules. The French also wrap negators on either side of the verb. The unmarked past tense in which the suffix ‘-ed’ is dropped,e.g. ‘he pass his driver’s test yesterday’, is also used in Asian and Native American languages. The deletions of verbal copula in which the words ‘is’ or ‘are’ are left out (‘he workin’)is also used in Russian, Arabic and Mandarin. If this were sloppy grammar, the same mistakes would not be made over again.
The study of AAVE has been introduced to make teachers aware of the fact that students are swapping languages between school and home. Recognition of this, instead of just telling children they’re using bad grammar, enables children to be more effectively taught. Unfortunately the use of AAVE in professional and scholarly circles is surrounded by social and linguistic stigma and users suffer constant correction and dismissal for the way they speak.
The creation of new words
Language is an ever-moving entity that is constantly changing. As with biological evolution, it must deviate from the norm in order to develop. New words are added to the dictionary at a rate of approximately 1000 words per year while five times that number are unofficially integrated into our vocabulary in other ways.
We add prefixes or suffixes—as with the words ‘realisation’ and ‘democratise’—we compound (‘nobody’ and ‘daydream’.) We repurpose words for other meanings, we take words from other languages, we imitate sounds and we transfer proper nouns. Sometimes words simply come from nowhere—as with the word ‘dog’. While each word is born in a different way, what they all have in common is that the first time they were used they were probably considered incorrect.
Shakespeare has been credited with inventing approximately 1700 words. The first time ‘assassination’ was used there was nothing but derision for the word. ‘Dauntless’ would have created confusion. ‘Obsequiously’ may have caused concern that perhaps the actor had begun speaking in another language. Without unorthodoxy language would stagnate. If we halt the use of a new word before it arrives at the point of proliferation, the English language will suffer, remaining the same and unable to serve its key function: to reflect the human experience at a current point in time.
The purpose of writing is to communicate a message. We must remember that as long as that message is understood, mistakes are not disastrous. Confusion about the use of apostrophes should not immediately render someone worthless of employment. If an em dash is used to create a compound adjective, that doesn’t mean we should disregard an otherwise worthy argument. If a student uses the term ‘on fleek’ their teacher should consider their background whether they are speaking in dialect. When you hear a word used out of context for the first time, keep in mind that in six months it could be a new addition to the dictionary. Language isn’t concrete and we should not attempt to make it so.