Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I don't care that you know the difference between "your" and "you're."

I'm an editor for a living, so people love to send stuff like this to me.

comic from this dumb tumblr

And I generally give a kind little laugh, because I understand why they'd think I'd like it, but here's what I'm thinking: This is dumb.

When it comes to language, you're either a linguistic descriptivist or a linguistic prescriptivist. Lots of people have described this distinction better than I'm about to (such as this brief and brilliant manifesto from the Linguistic Society of America), but basically, Descriptivists seek to describe how a given language is. Prescriptivists seek to describe how a given language should be. If you're a self-described "grammar nazi" (and by the way, ew at that name too), then you're a prescriptivist.

I'm not a linguist. But I have studied a lot of languages, mostly ancient ones, so I do know this much. They say you can't step in the same river twice. Language is the same way. It is a breathing, evolving, crazy thing that is created by the people who use it. What's unthinkable today is standard tomorrow. Did you really ever think we'd start saying 'blog, short for WEBLOG?? I, for one, did not.

Linguistic prescriptivism is like trying to catch a falling star. It's futile.

But more than that, it has some pretty classist and even racist implications.

To say that some language is right and some is wrong is to make a value judgement. Many people who use "nonstandard" language were brought up speaking dialects. Some language features are divided along regional lines. But some are divided along class and cultural lines. These dialects and language features are often derided as having "no grammar" or "bad grammar," when in fact they have distinct, legitimate, and well-documented grammars all their own. They're just different than what is considered to be standard.

In some cases, they even address gaps in the "standard" language. Consider Southern American y'all, and yous, which is heard among working-class northeastern Americans. They created a second-person plural where standard English lacks a distinction between the singular and plural.

Growing up in Tennessee, I grew up immersed in Southern American English, which I heard to a greater or lesser extent from most of the people in my life (with the notable exception of my Midwestern father). There is no greater punching bag among American dialects than my native one. Writers love to give a stupid character a deep drawl. Laughs at the overdone accents of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel and Kenneth Parcell are, in some ways, at our expense.

buy this amazing wall decor on Etsy if you're so inclined

Finally, I beg the "grammar nazis" around me to consider how they came to know the difference between who and whom. They were fortunate to be educated in those differences. Not everyone has had the same opportunities. And if anyone would care to retort that these skills are taught in elementary school, which is compulsory in the US, I would invite those people to spend a morning in, say, an underprivileged New Orleans public school 3rd grade grammar class on an empty stomach. Just the fact that most people attend elementary school in the US does not mean that we are all afforded the same opportunities.

But...I'm an editor. How do I reconcile my heartfelt feelings about language prescriptivism vs. language descriptivism with my profession? Why on Earth would a person with such touchy-feely ideas about language ever ever ever want to wield a red pen and a Chicago Manual of Style for a living?

I love language. I'm a perfectionist. And my whole life, I have really excelled at making text conform to a given style. Linguistic descriptivists generally agree that there is a value to a measure of standardization to mass communications. Keeping mass-consumed informational texts fairly standardized allows us precision of language where it is needed. So I run a tight ship when it comes to grammar, syntax, spelling, and style in my books. But I do so with the full acknowledgement that my way is not the only way.

And that's why I think groups like this are unimpressive and silly.

So go forth and write however y'all damn well please.

Oh, and if you're interested in hearing what someone much more intelligent and interesting than me has to say about this issue, read David Foster Wallace's amazing article "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage." (High five pal Julia for that totally apt link.)

Discussion question:
What is your favorite non-standard English word or expression?


  1. hear, hear! I'm in total agreement. It's possible to wear both hats in different parts of your life and be totally okay with that.

    1. I knew the classicists would probably feel me on this ;)

  2. Ooh, cool! I'd never heard the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist distinction before, but I dig your holistic vision of the valid roles for both precise grammar and "flowing rivers" of evolving language.

    "I might could" is my favorite non-standard expression. My southern dad says it a lot.

    1. Thanks James :)

      I love "might could!" Gives that added feeling of the uncertain potentiality.

  3. You're right, I do have a lot to say on this topic.

    For the last year, I've found myself in the strange situation of teaching a college level linguistics course, which also has... a significant writing component.

    One of the first things I teach my students is the difference between these two grammatical philosophies. Prescriptivism is the grammar of a select group of elites [read: old, dead, rich, educated, European, men] who applied many of the rules of classical Latin during the height of European imperialism (because they were waxing nostalgic for the good old days of Roman imperialism and all it's historically vetted global benefit...). It is defined in terms of correct and incorrect, and pays no attention to the natural variations in language that emerge over time.

    In contrast, descriptive grammar is an objective look at how language actually works and what real people are doing with it and is defined in terms of grammatical and ungrammatical (sensical/nonsensical, ok/not-ok). Linguists love descriptive grammar because we don't care about what the elites think about language- there are still rules, but they are just different (when a non-in-group member tries to 'talk black' or 'talk southern' or 'talk California' we recognize it because they are violating the descriptive rules [James' example above: 'might could' is grammatical, but 'could might' is NEVER grammatical]). Often, the most interesting and beautiful language innovations come from the most marginalized social groups (cf. rap, beat poetry, sign language). This is where you get to the meat of the matter and begin to understand the complexities of how language manifests from mind to utterance and then back into memory.

    Now, the hardest part of all of this is explaining to my students that while I am NOT a prescriptivist, my job as their teacher in a writing course is to help them improve their writing and as such, I have to grade them based on prescriptive grammatical rules because this is what society is likely to expect of them. It's hard and I sometimes hate it (I used to have a student who wasn't fully fluent in either of his 2 main languages who sometimes used adjectives as verbs in a regular, structured and beautiful way [and vice versa!]) but they seem to understand and rather than resent me, they seem genuinely pleased to know that there is another kind of grammar and that the way they've been speaking their entire lives isn't necessarily 'wrong' like they've been told.


    1. Girl, it sounds like you live this every day.

      I love reading about your Hawaiian and Texan life on fb, Melody Ann!!

  4. I am in 100% agreement with you, except for the title. "Who" vs "Whom" may be a bit fancy pants. I don't give a damn if someone says ""Me and Katie had the best time ever makin' lobster that day!" I mean, I know I'm supposed to say "Katie and I" but "Me and Katie" sounds just fine to me. I do have to draw the line at "your/you're". We learn this in 3rd grade y'all! Spell it right. Am I an awful person for this?

    1. Ooh, Mims, I anticipated your elementary school argument in the paragraph beginning "Finally." I don't think you're an awful person obviously but I do think it's important to consider educational opportunities and other inequalities before judging a person too harshly for nonstandard usage.

      I think the reason people constantly get this wrong is that the distinction is tricky and the words are homophones, not because they are lazy or willfully ignorant. I just bet that in a few hundred years or so that we will have adjusted the standard in some way to address this difficulty. Like switching to "yr" for both instances. As in, "Lobsters just aren't as tasty when yr not here wearing yr furry vest."

      *had to delete and repost this commentdue to formatting problems!

    2. Another feature of the you're/your thing is that they're indicative of a more interesting linguistic feature: phonological levelling. As short as just a few decades ago, those two were actually pronounced more differently than they are today. Look at the to/too/two thing- we screw this up because they sound exactly the same. In the same way, sometimes even the most educated of us miss a you're/your on occasion, and it could partially be due to the fact that we're thinking with sounds instead of symbols (this is true to greater and lesser degrees in some people than others). Now, as for then/than, you would think that they sound differently enough to have no excuse to screw them up, but my HI students pronounce them nearly identically and so do a lot of their west coast peers. I would LOVE it if someone would do a socio experiment on this...

  5. Language evolves, but there's a difference between using it inconsistently and using a different set of rules. That's why "you're" vs. "your" makes me cringe, but dialects are (to me) obviously something different. Using language incorrectly because of education is another thing altogether and something I hadn't thought of before. That's a hard one, because my reaction to incorrect grammar (written) tends to be that the person is being careless. So good to think about.

    Actually, what about the difference between written and spoken language? It's funny that the comic you posted doesn't make that distinction (the second character can "hear" some of the incorrect spelling :). You're editing text, and most of your examples seem to be about spoken dialect. Are "different styles" more acceptable in verbal form, or is it the same?

    On a different note, I love "y'all" and so wish I could pull it off. "You guys" is so much lamer. :P

    1. I see your distinction between inconsistent language and language with different grammar/structure/features/etc. But what's interesting to me is how many of the "inconsistencies" are consistent--so many people mess up you're/your and their/they're/there because they are tricky, I think, not because they're just lazy and impertinent. Like Melody Ann mentioned above, "might could" is a nonstandard phrase that is used consistently in a way that is sensical--if you said "could might," NO ONE would understand what you meant, regardless of dialect.

      I am definitely a descriptivist, regardless of whether the language is spoken or written. But, like I mentioned, I do acknowledge the value of some degree of standardization in mass-consumed texts for the sake of clarity and precision.

      I can't even imagine what kinds of implications linguistic democracy has for artificial intelligence. Please weigh in!!

  6. Why am I not seeing a like button on your weblog? FB it is! BTW this one is heart warming, Kate!!!

    1. Thanks Haritha, I'm glad it spoke to you!!

  7. Some folk'll never eat a snake
    But then again some folk'll...

    1. Listen, I'm not saying that Cletus isn't one of the best characters on the Simpsons.

      Saleswoman: No ma'am, but we do have a shipment of slightly burned Sears activewear coming in this afternoon.

      Cletus: What time and how burnt?

  8. Wow this is a really interesting discussion. I have a few thoughts on this really but they're kind of tangentially related..

    First, and follow me with this b/c it's totally tangential -- specificity of a statement is a topic I've been thinking about lately. If I say "An elephant has a tail" and I don't know what a tail is, then it might not help me very much. If I know that the person doesn't know what a tail is - then maybe a statement more like "an elephant has a tail which is a long swinging rope that hangs off of a butt" then maybe it can be more informative. But this relies on the beliefs that I have about the knowledge of someone else that I am talking to. So the way we speak to others indicates what we believe about the knowledge we have about someone else. Okay okay, moving on to my point... So I've been taking this computational linguistics class (and yes I'm awful at language), but one of the main body's of text people in CL use is the "wall street journal corpus" ... I mean seriously, what kind of hoighty toity group is this? Now unsurprisingly, they've been complaining that what they learn from the WSJ doesn't work on twitter feeds. DUH - it's different, it assumes different knowledge, and moreover, it has little to do about business. Now some of the hot stuff in CL has been about how to parse twitter feeds - which are completely unstructured... SO finally this got me thinking about whether or not the grammars used by the "high class" are simply more descriptive in its statement... higher quality statements. I mean this is all what this post has gotten me thinking about - if the specificity of language is higher, it feels redundant and boring. That's why fiction authors who are "highly descriptive" that a lot of my english teachers love are uninteresting to me - they bore me in that it lacks the effort it takes to resolve the ambiguity when reading it. I should stop...

    Second - I had an interesting epiphony about there, their, and they're which is that the reason it's easy for me to disambiguate (and this might be my internal laziness) is due to me still reading text with a little voice in my head. When I say they're their, and they're - they are all pronounced the same way and the same mechanism I use to disambiguate it in spoken word probably gets triggered in written text as well. Anyway - interesting.

    Great post as always Katie :-)


      ugh we have so much to discuss! why am I married to such an interesting person??

  9. Katie,
    Great fodder for conversation -- spoken, written, e-mailed, texted, tweeted or intuited! My favorite spelling / pronunciation pet peeves are:"intresting," rather than interesting; "vetrans," rather than veterans; "relator," rather than realtor; "mammy-o-gram," rather than mammogram; "estetic," rather than esthetic; "alot," rather than a lot....not to mention the new age spellings that get used in texting..."c u later," what do u want 4 dinner," etc. Personally, I love to write in phonetic Southern -- "We're amissin' yawl, Nick and Katie, hope yer afeelin' good and alearnin' how to tawk yankee! Yee ha, git down, less us awl plan on gettin' togethah!"

    1. I say "realator" and I don't even know why. I guess that's how my folks say it?

      Hope we can meet up for a spring rendezvous soon xooxox

  10. i think there's a clear distinction here between (not so-)subtle shifts in grammar, pronunciation, etc manifested in dialect vs the title of your article which is about misuse of homophones.

    if you were to join an australian chat room because you want to find out where the locals eat in brisbane before your trip, you'd be sure to encounter a fair amount of vocabulary and a couple of grammatical constructs with which you're unfamiliar. most of these can be decoded fairly quickly, given exposure to a significantly-sized body of text.

    however, once you understand what the aussies are saying, you may still be confounded when someone improperly uses "your". i know i am. if the sentence were read aloud, there would be no problem distinguishing the meaning at first pass (modulo accents, perhaps). but if you're trained to understand the difference between the homophones, you'll be tripped up the first time you read the phrase and may need to go back and more carefully examine the text in order to extract the intended message.

    this happens to me all the time in internet chat (and, to a lesser extent, fora), where there could be dozens or hundreds of people all inserting their opinions on a topic. i find that lexical substitution (wherein i read "yous", "yinz", "all", etc as "y'all", e.g.) to be simple because of their one-to-one mapping. each time i encounter its/it's or they're/their/there used improperly, though, it's jarring because the word's meaning (or part of speech, even) does not make sense in the local context of the sentence.

    it feels like you're giving people a pass on using the wrong word because they sound alike. but when we read text, the sounds of words are not a crutch we may rely on. not all readers subvocalize. indeed not all of us have ever heard the words pronounced.

    i used to like hearing about people who were "fixing to" do things. it doesn't do much for me anymore.
    i love when people can't recall a noun and improvise a new one like thingamajig, doflickey, sumbitch, etc
    i also have a newfound fondness for the compound word richman, pronounced like workman, postman, etc (i.e. like richmond, virginia)

    1. Obviously there is a distinction between dialectical differences and usage problems, but they all trace back to prescriptivism. Do we care about how language SHOULD be, or do we care about what it actually is and how it functions?

  11. Would that I "were" --more formal and implies desire?


    Would that I "was"

    --why? the distinctions don't seem clear enough.

    Anyways, we've bastardized this English thing so much by now. And times are so different from writing with quill and pen days, so what does it have to do with modern times and us anyways?

  12. Moreover, firstly and lastly, I just thought of this penultimate point: I'm not saying the English language came from aliens, but it's aliens.

  13. Argh thank you. These are actually points I've tried and mostly failed to make quite a bit. I concur.

    Also: in formal academic writing, sure, one should use the language "properly" -- but it would be SO LAME to try and impose the same set of grammar restrictions on, say, a tweet feed, or a hip-hop song. Or even, frankly, a novel, where style and voice often make for bent grammar.

    And even certain branches of academia have different modes that are not only acceptable, but a must in those fields. I am sure there are constructs that fly in "legalese" or in the sciences that would get red penned to death in English class.

    AND ANOTHER THING: Nobody gets mad at people for being "dumb" about math and taxes, or says they are morons for not understanding how to read a contract. In fact, it is comical and expected, and perhaps even a small source of pride, for people to moan about those things. Some of the most "bookish" people I know will cheerfully admit they barely know how to balance a checkbook, and their eyes glaze over when they see legalese.

    But show those same people one accidental slip of the apostrophe and forget about it, it's like you've been out murdering kittens.

    Take a valium and read some Shakespeare, Internet.

    1. HIGH FIVE DUDE. Agreed entirely! Love the comparison to math--very apt.

  14. I understand what you're saying. For some people, English isn't their forte. Just like some people are pathetically hopeless when it comes to math. My dad and sister are both terrible spellers and aren't very good with grammar but are intelligent in other areas. Their priorities are simply focused elsewhere. Apparently you either get it or you don't. You're skilled with language or you aren't. It still makes me cringe every time I see someone mix up "you're" and "your",though,especially when reading fanfiction.