WORMSKIN

10/21/2013

"Proper English" is a myth; the grammar police are wrong

I have gotten into heated debates about this very topic, so I have no grounds to begrudge the hordes of online anal retentives who compulsively need to correct everyone else's mistakes. All the time. Everywhere.

Maybe this is a weird stance to take from a guy who purports to edit things in his non-professional capacity as an editor of PDFs, but I don't assert my opinion here out of personal convenience.

The idea that languages -- in this case we're going to talk about English, but what follows applies to ALL living languages that aren't Klingon or Sindarin or otherwise invented by nerds as a kind of intellectual exercise and/or artform -- 

The idea that languages have static rules and possess an inherent proper form is bunk and can only be construed as non-bunk in the sense that there is a tacit social agreement among societies that this must be so. Artificial rules of language begin to be indoctrinated into English-speaking humans shortly after birth with the expectation that everyone will be on the same page by the time they reach maturity. 

Like how we're on the same page regarding AIN'T.

We will all know that ain't isn't a word. 

And yet, AIN'T has form (note the letters and symbol that make it up) and meaning. We are all secretly aware that it makes a fine substitute for ISN'T in the sense that it conveys the same relationship equally well, and yet some of us hate AIN'T for the sole reason that it isn't proper.

What a bunch of cunts.

"Proper" loses its meaning very quickly as we back away from the timeline of History and actually consider how much "Proper English" changes, mutates, absorbs, adapts, devolves, evolves in relatively short periods of time. People did not stop speaking Middle English because some advanced linguist discovered Modern English and everyone agreed that it was better. The very boundary between Middle and Modern is a blur of linguistic indistinctness. 

The notion of Proper English itself isn't all that very old.

The point here is that language never stops changing, and notions of Proper English erode and partially collapse continuously. 

Bitching about it is like bitching about the weather.

19 comments:

  1. A point of clarification:

    Notions of language propriety are entirely contextual. What is OK grammar-wise for one particular audience in a particular venue is not OK for a different audience in a different venue.

    Academic English is different from Newspaper English is different from Street English is different from Spoken Southern English.

    But. . .to reach as wide an audience as possible, mass produced communication (books, newspapers, magazines, professionally produced websites, etc.) need to employ a standardized language construction set to ensure maximum understanding. So, "Proper English" -- or, more to the point, "King's English" or "Queen's English" -- is a standardized toolset that can be utilized in any situation. That's not to say it is the best toolset for every situation, but it is the most widely used toolset because it is taught in schools (which is a result of Victorian class structure, but that is a debate for another day).

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    1. It's less the "style guide" aspect of English -- which at least admits to the existence of a number of parallel styles --- than the practice of being a self-appointed grammar vigilante that feels the need to enforce where force isn't needed and appears doucherific.

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    2. I feel like the Grammar Vigilante is the poor man's Batman; and I have these wild images in my mind of a drunken librarian wondering across her abandoned building late at night only to be accosted by some falling books. And there, in her drunken stupor, she slurs out, "This is my mission! I shall correct the grammar of all those misguided miscreants on the internet!" Then she throws a cape over her shoulders, wraps a Halloween mask over her eyes, and begins to maliciously tap out her self-stylized grammatical corrections on a worn out, government issued key board.

      There's a comic in there, I think. But one that should never be viewed by anyone who loves themselves or others.

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  2. I don't know. I think I'm always going to have a problem with someone saying "two mens."

    Sorry.

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    1. No apology necessary -- personal preference is necessarily subjective. I don't translate my books into Ebonics because I prefer to read them in a familiar dialect.

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    2. "Two mens" is quite different to "ain't". Google is a great tool for finding out about tendencies: a search for "two men" returned 234,000 results (a great amount of which because of an apostrophe left off), while "ain't" returned 47,900,000 results. It is not sufficient to say that "two mens" is non-existing, but it is clear that while "ain't" is used regularly and systematically, "two mens" as a string is, most of the time, either a result of misspeaking or hypercorrection (since to some people "man" and "men" sound the same, they may feel somehow marking the plural form).

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    3. Could be worse. I've actually heard "menses" used non-ironically.

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    4. And let's not forget "your guys'" (pronounced like "your guises").

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  3. Aint is actually spelled Ain't, it's a contraction of "are not"

    :-P

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    1. For the record, I wholeheartedly agree with you.

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    2. "ain't" is actually the contracted form of many things:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ain%27t

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    3. From wikipedia
      "In the United Kingdom, ain't is generally used only by the working classes, such as those speaking the Cockney dialect"

      Made me howl with laughter, have to love the generalisations of perceived class structure. I personally dislike ain't not because it is 'common or vulgar' but because it is lazy to use.

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    4. As long as there is no misunderstanding, simplifying and shortening strings of messages is desirable in communication.

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  4. im dyslexic but a prolific writer - eding slows me down most but I managed to be an editor - if i listened to grammar nazis i would have stopped years ago - proper english has always been about snobbery and class-ism and even used by eugenicists to propose working and criminal classes be sterilized - i have worked with kindly supportive editors and other editors make me wish i was dead - te latter abuse does not help anybody. Propping up yourself by putting others down is bullying - but if i can find constant errors in a book i suspect there is something wrong or rushed - my grammar and vowel blindness makes reading ancient translations with weird grammer and syntax easier for me to read than many find

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  5. The nice thing about English is that, though there are rules and common usages that should be followed, sometimes it's OK to break a rule to provide emphasis on a specific point. I teach grad school on the side and tell my students that there are times when breaking the "rules" is not only OK, but a good idea. However, you have to KNOW the rules to start with; only then can you leave the reservation and do some fun stuff with the language. Otherwise, you just look ignorant. (for the record, I only correct my wife's grammar, and then only because it annoys her so much!)

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  6. Back in the day when I worked on magazines professionally, I would often get into friendly arguments about this with one of my co-workers. We decided that she would be a Language Creationist while I would remain dedicated to the Theory of Linguistic Evolution... :)

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    1. That's an excellent analogy. Language Creationists must spend a lot of their time just ignoring huge chunks of historical evidence.

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  7. Structure and limits is how we know that English loves us.

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