What do we care about, really?

“Oh, please, stop. I can’t stand to hear that. It’s like chewing on tin foil. You have it all wrong. Really, I must insist. I care about good English.”

Behold one of the great socially countenanced forms of authoritarian aggression: brutishly objecting to someone else’s English usage. The sin may be a pronunciation that’s not “right,” or a transgression of one of the grade-school superstitions (“split infinitives,” ending sentences with prepositions, using the word ain’t), or a “wrong” meaning (decimate gets a lot of this), or – Heaven forfend – a misspelling. We treat a spelling error as sufficient to vitiate any argument, however well reasoned; we may even issue peremptory unsolicited corrections to slight variations from what we consider correct. Some people have gone so far as to vandalize public signage to change punctuation. And the self-justification is always on the order of “I care about good English.”

Spoiler: That is not why we are doing it.

We have surely convinced ourselves that that is why we are doing it, but we convince ourselves of all sorts of things that aren’t true because we don’t want to admit the real reason. And few people want to admit that they are taking an opportunity to use aggression to exercise dominance. Few people want to admit that the flame they feel on hearing or seeing a transgression of “good English” is the same cue for aggression that any bully feels and acts on – the same cue that any jackbooted thug or screaming martinet is quick to respond to.

But everyone secretly likes authoritarianism as long as they get to have the authority.

There. I’ve said it. It’s true. Even those of us who are strongly opposed to an authoritarian social order still let slip a little taste for authority-based dominance. Dominance feels good, and low-effort dominance feels better. However much a person may be socially liberal, even anarchic, however generally permissive they may be, however free-thinking, there will be some place they will find to pull out a trump card of authority and slap it on someone else. I’ve had people with the word “freethinker” in their Twitter bios go full-on dogmatic at me about petty points of punctuation. We all want a SMITE button. I’m no exception: one of my motivations in getting a master’s degree in linguistics was so I could say to grammar Nazgûls“Look, I know what I’m talking about, and you’re wrong.” (Tip: That doesn’t actually work; you always have to argue the point, because grammar cranks do not accept your authority if it does not agree with what they “know.”)

We start by learning “rules” about English usage. Rules are tidy and easy to follow, they give us a feeling of order, and we can whack people with them. There are, of course, many rules of usage that we all learn and follow without trouble, but the important thing about our pet shibboleths is that they proscribe things that people often actually do – writers “split infinitives” frequently (scare quotes because it’s not a real thing); people say “anyways” all the time; people frequently say the name of a place the “wrong” way (meaning the way that’s obvious to anyone not from the place, but not the way people from there say it). If you’re going to draw lines, they have to be ones that people will cross so you can attack them.

But when a person says or writes something “wrong,” we don’t say “Aha! They have transgressed an arbitrary rule, so I am licensed to assert dominance over them!” We respond that way in our behaviour, but we don’t let ourselves think that’s what we’re doing, because we don’t want to think of ourselves as aggressors maintaining a social dominance order on the basis of arbitrary rules. As psychologists put it, we have to resolve the cognitive dissonance with self-justification. We have to cast ourselves as good – as noble defenders of the right – and the transgressors as bad aggressors. This gives the bonus of letting us feel not just not bad but actually good about ourselves for doing it. And we still get to attack!

It’s like referred pain. If you have something wrong somewhere in your body, you may feel the pain in a different location. Liver problems, for instance, are often felt in the right shoulder blade. And if you eat a large chunk of wasabi by mistake, the pain likely starts in your nose and ends up at the back of your head, which the wasabi does not. Well, grammar viciousness is referred aggression. I see a thing that provokes an aggressive feeling in me, so I attribute it to something that will allow me to act on it. Anger feels basically the same no matter what causes it – the main difference is the extra bump of good feeling you get if you can attribute its cause to something awful and see yourself as righteous for “correcting” it. In this case, the “something awful” is “bad English.” Horrible, disgusting, bad grammar, destroying communication and decency and all that crap.

It really is crap, you know. I’ve been an editor for more than 20 years, and I can tell you that the things that make writing ineffective and unpleasant are not mainly deviations from grammar standards. I’ve read many perfectly grammatically “correct” sentences that have been like chewing wet, dirty socks. But that doesn’t make me want to find the authors and berate them; it just makes me want to help them make it more effective… as long as they pay me. (Hey, cooks, mechanics, and fashion consultants don’t work for free either.) And, on the other hand, I’ve read many excellent, effective sentences that break some “rule.”

Imagine if you had a rule that people have to wear striped socks when entering a house, and any other kind of socks is a gross infraction. Why? Because that’s the rule you learned from your teachers and your grandmother. All those people who have done otherwise and still do otherwise are barbarians. Does that seem worth getting upset about? Some people actually do get very upset about “mistakes” in attire. Which really means that they have learned that deviations from their learned norms are acceptable targets for aggression. It’s not intrinsically different from schoolyard bullying… or grammar numptyism.

Are you about to point out that there are, in fact, appropriate kinds of dress for certain places and events? It’s true, thanks to tradition. It’s also true that those standards are context dependent. I don’t wear a swimsuit to a formal event or a tuxedo to the beach. You even often help create the circumstance with your choice of clothing. The same is true with your choice of words: ain’t conveys informality, for instance.

And if someone uses informal language in a formal setting? It’s awkward, but it’s not destroying the language. If you feel righteous anger, it’s not really because you care about good English. The language will do just fine, as it always has. In fact, it’s probably better off without the “defence” – as are we all.

4 responses to “What do we care about, really?

  1. Thanks for this one. You’ve nailed it. Or one it. In fact, this is what I was after when I tried to get someone to write about what makes an editor, really, for a long-ago /Active Voice/. What we got wasn’t this — we should have done it ourselves. Though maybe we didn’t know all this back then, and maybe the times weren’t as all-round aggressive, self-regarding, ya know . . .



  2. Vincent Colin Burke

    This post makes a very persuasive case for its thesis, upon the evidence available to him who made it. But that might be not all the evidence that exists, and a persuasive argument is not awasys necessarily logically compelling.. For instance, there may be some who don’t get huffy at being offered opportunities to learn by being corrected; these might not think every effort to correct them is an exercise in, or an attempt at, social dominance. And whether or not there are such persons, behaving as if one were such might much dampen a corrector’s satisfaction at “achieving” dominance. (I remember your post about turning the other cheek, offered quite some time ago.)

  3. Pingback: One fewer thing to fuss about | Sesquiotica

  4. I have been known to be a bit of a grammar numpty but am finding that it is actually quite pleasing to let some of those “rules” go.

    My gender-nonconforming child has been asking me for a long time to use non-binary pronouns for them. I have this week, for the first time, done so in a blog post and the world did not come to an end. When lightning did not strike I thought, “OK, then. Maybe I should do this more often.” In the end, it’s not up to me what rules to apply to someone else.

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