Prescriptivism Blows!

Reddit is not the classiest place on the internet, partly because every argument tends to devolve into ad hominem attacks about the other person’s grammar. This may surprise you coming from a researcher and writer, but this habit is completely ridiculous. It doesn’t improve anyone’s opinion of your intelligence, nor does it give you some sort of objective upper hand.

From a linguistics perspective, “correctness” is not an issue. Linguistics focuses on descriptive studies of language, which means they just document what’s there; how language is really being used by its native speakers. The opposite, championed by English teachers and Redditors, is called prescriptive grammar, and academics today don’t spend nearly as much time as they used to nitpicking the general usage of English.

From a writing perspective, there are many reasons to use “proper” grammar and there are many reasons not to. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve with your writing piece. For example, maybe you are writing a scholarly paper and want its style to match other similar works. On the other hand, maybe you are J.K. Rowling finding a voice for Hagrid’s dialogue, who wouldn’t have been so lovely a character if his speech patterns matched Mrs. Dursley’s. I’m not saying that we should toss out all conventions, because readability is still the number one priority. I am saying that every rule bends, and there is a time and a place to apply them.

This is not to mention that the propriety of writing and speaking conventions often comes from the racist and sexist ideas ingrained in our culture. African American Vernacular English (known sometimes as Ebonics but I believe that term has fallen out of favor) is unacceptable in formal and professional spaces. Why? Racism. Black people have been systematically removed from and denied access to academic spaces and therefore have had very little power over how ‘scholarly’ language has formed. And when they don’t speak like the general culture expects them to, they are ridiculed. Why do we constantly tease people for speaking like teenage girls? Sexism. We don’t value young girls as more than sex objects, and after teaching them to ‘hedge’ their words to avoid getting called ‘bitchy,’ we make fun of them for how they speak.

Language is a treasure in all its forms, and while I may give off a distinctly Hermione-Granger-like first impression, I wanted to make it clear that all varieties of English are welcome here, and will not be judged. I’d say that all varieties of all languages are welcome, but I don’t speak any others very well!

For further reading about hedging and sexism, check out this blog post from Experiences with Language.


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