written December 31, 2015
Dear grammar elitists (aka grammar police),
It’s the end of the year and I’d like to suggest a new year’s resolution that many of us can undertake. I think it’s time we all stop judging people on their use, or in other people’s words, on their “incorrect use” of “proper grammar”. Maybe I’m noticing it more because instead of helping children understand language better, I have been vigorously studying language. Or, maybe it’s because social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook have given people the power (and dare I say, audacity) to become overly obnoxious grammar police in public. Time and time again I read other people’s blogs where they rant on and on about how much they hate it that someone doesn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re." Or I see talk shows where the hosts vent about people who don’t get their “theres” right (I don’t even know how to write that). The problem is that there could be many reasons that a person does not use the high and mighty mainstream American English grammar correctly and I would like to share three of them that make sense to me.
Reason #1 – Perhaps this person has a language disorder.**
I am a speech-language pathologist and when you work with children with language disorders you realize that grasping the understanding of grammatical rules is not always easy. More importantly, these children with language disorders grow up to be adults with language disorders, and guess what? Sometimes this challenge stays with them and you see this difficulty emerge during a conversation, in an email, or even a Facebook status update. So, while they are brilliant in many areas of life, language and linguistic concepts can be particularly challenging for them.
Reason #2 – Perhaps this person was educated in an institution where use of MAE grammar was not emphasized rather than being educated in an institution where correct use of MAE was emphasized (like a college or university).
Here’s the thing, not everyone has been educated in a college or university, where MAE is not only valued, but warranted for success in that environment. You have to write papers and you get graded on your correct use of MAE grammar, among other things. There are many people who have also been educated, only in other institutions, such as trade schools or the military. In these settings, students/soldiers are graded more on their communication skills and subject matter expertise. If my job is to fix your car, it’s not really necessary to differentiate usage of “your” and “you’re” and frankly, why should I? If I can tell you the problem is your carburetor and I can fix it, then I’m successful at my job. Granted, there are times when writing down information is warranted, but let's look at the big picture here.
Reason #3 – Perhaps English is not this person’s first language (of course dialect can fit here too – see my past blogs on AAE)
I have plenty of friends whose first language is not English. They make MAE grammatical errors often, but you know what, they speak more than one language!! Many times the mistakes they make are due to the influence of their first language or because while they may know how to speak in English, when it comes to writing it, that’s a whole other story. But seriously people, they are speaking another language, why do we judge whether they know when to use “me” versus “I”. We seem to be more accepting of people whose first language is not English and they are not from here (i.e., USA), but we need to be more accepting of people whose first language is not English and they are from here.
3 suggestions for the above situations:
If you do happen to have a verbal or written interaction with a person who fits in one of the above scenarios:
1) Do not embarrass this person or make them feel bad about themselves simply for doing their best to express themselves.
2) Recognize that it may be an extra challenge for them to use the privileged grammar that mainstream society expects.
3) Try your best to understand that their life path was different from yours.
As long as the goal of communication was met there is no need to call someone out on their incorrect use of an apostrophe.
And lastly (yes, I snuck a 4th reason in here), sometimes people just don’t care! I know that if I’m writing a text message or writing an email quickly, I could care less (did you catch that one??) if my grammar was up to MAE perfection or not.
So, before we judge someone on their intelligence, their education, their language abilities, or their grasp of English as a second (or third or fourth) language, let’s think about how we can be just a little more open-minded, a little more tolerant, and a lot less judgmental.
Because in the end, it’s not about the grammar, it’s about if the goal of communication was met. And more often than not, it was.
**To educate yourself more about language disorders, see my manual about communication disorders in the classroom.