on the difference between linguists and grammar snobs

People often believe that I am the type of person to whom it would be unsafe to write anything containing a grammatical mistake, and while that pains me, I get why. I study Applied Linguistics, and as such I am passionate about language. I think about it often, and I talk about it in casual conversation as if that were a normal thing to do. Moreover–besides being the type of person who would try to get away with using a word like “moreover”–like many in my field, I teach English, which lends even more credence to the notion that I am a linguistic control freak. However, I and, more importantly, most applied linguists would be deeply offended to be grouped together with people who cry in horror at split infinitives, missing apostrophes, and dangling participles (or, for that matter, the “serial comma” I just used), and I think the distinction between what I do and what they do is important to understand.  (For an introduction to this topic in general and to the serial comma specifically, this NPR editorial is a good read)

There are many different names for people who do that sort of thing such as “Grammar Nazis” or “the grammar police.” As you can see in the picture below, they even have their own merchandise, and some attempt to put a positive spin on things by calling themselves “Grammar nerds” or “Grammar geeks.” In her hilarious and wonderfully written book, June Casagrande calls them “Grammar snobs,” and for the sake of consistency, I’ll use the term “snobs” to refer to them here, but really, we all know who (excuse me: “whom”) I’m talking about (excuse me: “about whom I’m talking”). We’ve all at some point either been witness to, victim of, and/or perhaps even complicit in their tirades against “improper usage” or simply “bad grammar,” and on the surface it seems like their passion for correct form resembles the work of linguists, but that is really far from the case. Linguists and grammar snobs are in many ways diametrically opposed.  I’d like to try to show why.

Grammar Police Mug

Mantra of the snob, not linguist

First, let me say that correction itself doesn’t bother me. I edit my own writing (and self-correct in speech) quite often. Even in informal written contexts, I sometimes delete and rewrite my Facebook comments as fast as I can in a futile attempt to make it look like I had originally written what I eventually decided was better. I believe there is such a thing as a better, clearer, more powerful means of expression, and that, all else equal, we should pursue it. After all, language is a powerful tool, and Spiderman has taught us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” I do strongly value comprehensibility, force, deftness, and even beauty in language, but that’s not the same thing as conformity to arbitrary, self-contradictory stylistic edicts of the self-proclaimed elite. In so many words, I’m not against all of the snobs’ “corrections,” but I end up disagreeing with most of them because I strongly disagree with their means of judging language as grammatical or ungrammatical, and what they mean by both of those terms. So call those grammar snobs what you may–nerds, nazis, or nitpickers–just don’t call them linguists. They aren’t.

Grammar Snob Cat

I’m being rather nonchalant in using the word “they,” as if grammar snobs were some unified, homogeneous cult, but I’m comfortable doing so here because, no matter how diverse the individual snobs may be, “their” handiwork tends to follow a very distinct, uniform pattern. The following is what I see as the typical modus operandi of a grammar snob:

  • Decide before reading or listening to something that formal accuracy is more important than successful communication
  • Read or listen to a given language sample, paying special attention to particular forms, often (though not always) at the expense of the message itself
  • Ignoring the content, label any form that differs from their conception of the norm as wrong, when possible using linguistic-looking jargon
  • (Optional) Add some haughty-sounding phrase and assert that it constitutes what the original speaker or writer “should have said”
  • (Optional, and less frequent) Insult the original speaker or writer

I think it’s clear from that overview why I don’t much respect that whole process. The first two in that list are objectionable enough such that whatever happens after that is moot, but that’s actually not the only reason why linguists and grammar snobs differ in their judgments.  My biggest pet peeve with grammar snobs is that, in a surprisingly large number of cases, in the act of trying to “correct” someone else’s “grammar,” snobs commit three separate but related offenses.

  1. They invoke an argument that has nothing to do with linguistics, grammar, or sometimes even language
  2. The argument itself often isn’t true or even internally consistent
  3. The exchange that results distracts from real, underlying issues in language use and deflects people away from otherwise readily available information on language that is genuinely interesting, empowering, and meaningful

That was long and complicated, so let me break it down in a simple example. In a previous post I ranted about the word “funnest.” Use of that word can push grammar snobs into a long diatribe about how funnest isn’t a word because it’s not in a dictionary. Well, the three problems I just mentioned are well-evidenced in this example:

  1. Dictionaries (especially paper ones) aren’t an appropriate source of determining word/non-word status. That’s just not the kind of argumentation you’d use in linguistics at all.
  2. “Funnest” is listed in several prestigious dictionaries. They assume it isn’t in the dictionary because they think it shouldn’t be there, but in fact the opposite is true.
  3. The issue of what constitutes a “real word” is a fascinatingly icky problem, but if we look at real usage and gather data from (often free, often online) sources like corpora, it shows that “funnest” is as real a word as any other. If people knew about these relatively straightforward tools, they could find out all sorts of things about their own language and how it works.

Now, “funnest” is one example of this 1-2-3 pattern (bad argument; false anyway; a better argument says the opposite and is insightful), but there are countless others. I’ll describe just one of those “countless others” below, but before that I thought you might be wondering why I’m riled up about this. After all, maybe grammar snobs have nothing better to do with their time. Maybe–indeed, quite probably–they derive a sadistic pleasure from making snide remarks about other people’s language, and who am I to deny other people pleasure? It’s a free internet, and all that.

The problem is, though, language teachers have to deal with the aftermath of their handiwork. The legacy of this conflation of (often misbegotten) “style guidelines” with real “English grammar” (which, properly understood, are two very different things) is such that our students believe not only that they have to learn these “rules,” but that those rules have some intrinsic value. Some of my own students believe that teachers can (and even should) be evaluated based on their mastery of those rules and their ability to foster mastery thereof in their students, and that’s frankly appalling. While belittling someone for a missing apostrophe is trite and objectionable on its own grounds, for me there is the added grievance that these snobs are interfering with good teaching practice. Grammar snobs make my job, my colleagues’ jobs, and the work of my students harder and more complicated, and for that, they have become the subject of my rant.

There are so many examples of fundamentally flawed grammar snob arguments that it’s tough to choose just one. Who/whom, lie/lay, there/they’re/their, sentence-final prepositions, and effect/affect are each worthy of separate rants, but for here, in my thinly veiled attempt to reach out to people who might think grammar snobbery is a good thing, I’ll talk about one that’s less close to the typical grammar snob’s heart. It’s called “impersonal they.”

Grammar snobs will tell you that the following sentence is malformed:

  • If someone comes looking for me, tell them I’ll be back soon.

Instead, some of them will insist, straight-faced, that the sentence should be:

  • If someone comes looking for me, tell him or her (that) I’ll be back soon.
  • (Alternatively) If people come looking for me, tell them I’ll be back soon.

Their argument is typically that “they” refers to plural subjects, and “someone” refers to singular subjects, so the pronouns don’t agree.  They typically add on that “young people” or “people nowadays” say “they” but that traditionally, English strictly maintained that distinction.  Well, we can go down that checklist I proposed earlier: 1) Non-linguistic? Yes. 2) Untrue anyway? Yes. 3) Obfuscates interesting language-related issues? Yes. 4) Makes my job harder? Yes. Here’s the breakdown:

1) The argument sounds linguistically based, but it really isn’t. The snobs simply assert that “they” refers to plural subjects only–because snobs said so–and not because that’s how the pronoun actually behaves in the language. Linguists don’t just get to call the shots and say how a language should operate. Our job is to figure out how it actually operates and pass on the relevant parts of that knowledge to our students. If the word “they” is used frequently in the context of an unspecified singular third person–as in fact it is–then that’s part of the grammar of English. Grammar is, very simply, the system of form-meaning associations in a speech community. In certain contexts, certain forms mean certain things and have certain communicative value, and others do not. A linguistic argument against impersonal “they” would have to be phrased like “In formal written contexts, use of ‘they’ or its other case forms to refer to a singular referent is stigmatized and may result in unfavorable reception.”  Even that argument, in my opinion, is flawed (there are quite a few examples of its use in articles published in academic journals like TESOL Quarterly and national newspapers, but they’re usually not salient enough to attract ire). Really, though, that’s not their argument anyway. Their argument can be called any number of things–pretentious, pedantic, petty–but it cannot be called “linguistic.”

2) Their argument is just not true. The distinction between singular and plural pronouns in English has never been that strictly delimited. Many people learn the concept of the “royal we” through Shakespeare, and that’s one example of where a plural form is used in place of the singular. In Shakespearean times, people commonly used the pronoun “thou” to refer to singular persons and “you” for more than one person, but “you” was also used to refer to individual persons formally, and it eventually became the standard for all second-person addresses. More to the point, though, people in the 21st century use “we” in impersonal contexts when saying “I” simply sounds too committal. The sentence “We’re experiencing some cold weather up here” could refer to the people of that area, but really, it doesn’t refer to anyone specifically. It’s just impersonal, like when I said “our students” in a paragraph above. One could just as easily use “I” (or “my students”), but saying “we” depersonalizes the statement. All three pronoun distinctions, then–I/we, thou/you, he/she/they–are (or were) not quite so black-and-white as the grammar snobs would have us believe anyway.  Polysemy (having more than one possible meaning) and situational exceptions in the case of singular and plural forms are not even unusual across languages; English’s fuzziness in that respect is very similar to French, German, and many others. Separately, the snobs’ assumption that they are “preserving” English is also just false. Impersonal “they” was used more than 600 years ago in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, and has enjoyed widespread use consistently since then. It is English, and it has been English for quite some time, but even if it were some “new” development, John McWhorter likens the snobs’ practice of trying to preserve the language to trying to stop the tide from coming in by drying the beach with a towel. I find that a powerful image of how absurd what they’re doing really is.

3) If people weren’t scared off by grammar snobs, engaging them in a conversation about pronoun shifts in English might not sound like what it does today: something that should be prohibited in the Geneva Convention. Pronouns, which you’d think would be rock-solid, are in fact quite fluid and chaotic across languages. Japanese has or had literally dozens of personal pronouns, many of which have shifted meaning drastically over time, and all that despite the fact that pronouns are commonly dropped from speech and writing when not absolutely necessary for comprehension. Previously I discussed how the Japanese second-person omae, or other words like kisama, used to be strictly formal and honorific, but nowadays, only a few generations later, they can be insulting and even vulgar. German, in what I can only imagine is the result of years of its speakers consuming more beer than water, has come to a point where the second-person singular nominative and accusative (i.e. “you”) and third-person singular dative (“to him/her”) forms are the same, “ihr,” while the third-person singular and second-person plural nominative and accusative pronouns merged on a different form, “sie.”  If that whole sentence sounded like confusing nonsense, then you’ve accurately understood it. Even in English, “you” started out as the accusative case only. A millennium ago, Britons would say “I see you,” but crucially not “*You see me.”  That would sound weird to them, just like saying “Me see you” would sound weird to us. Instead, the form in that position was “ye.”  “Ye see me,” which sounds vaguely pirate-like now, was at one point in history the way people talked in English.

Why would that be?  Shouldn’t pronouns be relatively stable?  We use personal pronouns hundreds of times in daily conversation; they’re some of the most frequent words in the English language. Those are really interesting questions. Indeed, part of the work of linguists is finding answers to those questions.  Unfortunately, though, people don’t tend to think about those questions partially because they think discussions of grammar are exclusively for people who want to feel superior to others.

4) Lastly, and most importantly, this has an impact on English teaching, English teachers, and students learning English. Presumably due to the influence of grammar snobs in the language testing community, I have, to my dismay, seen questions on standardized tests of English that specifically target impersonal “they,” who/whom, lie/lay, and other grammar snob problems. What happens when a high-stakes standardized test like the TOEFL uses items that test mastery of these nonsense maxims?  Am I obligated to teach something I not only don’t believe, but in fact strongly believe against, all the while sacrificing classroom time that I could have otherwise dedicated to activities I feel would be truly beneficial?

Unfortunately, the answer to that last question is “yes.”  Psychometricians call this effect “washback,” and as much as ETS tries to use its power for good, the TOEFL has a long and storied history of negative washback in the ESL classroom. High-stakes exams often have dramatic, real-world consequences, and failure to pass them can cost students hundreds or even thousands of dollars and months of their time, so if I can get students to pass by having them memorize a few nonsense arguments to spew out for the exam and promptly forget thereafter, I will and probably even should. Now, I’m not helpless as a teacher. There are things conscientious teachers can do to deal with it, but that’s another post, and the point here is that we shouldn’t have to “deal with it” in the first place. Neither should my students, and neither should anyone.

So please, when someone tells you they’re studying linguistics or applied linguistics, understand that grammar snobbery is not part of their required coursework. (Note: I just used impersonal “they” twice) In fact, linguists often work against grammar snobs, advocating for our students, or simply advocating for logic, and I’d like to think we’re winning the war. Slowly but surely, awareness of the hypocrisy of the grammar police is spreading, as evidenced by educational websites, classes, and even comic skits (though I warn you, that last one isn’t family friendly). On the other hand, one could just as easily cite examples of other self-described grammar experts who continue to misinform and miseducate, but even they have to find ways to explain away their many fallacies instead of simply going unquestioned, and that’s good. The end result of those questions is, I believe, a fuller understanding of language, and that is what the job of linguists is all about.  (Excuse me: “That is all about which the job of linguists is.”)