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It’s **you’re, sweetie

I like the English language. This is handy because I derive my income from arranging words. Sometimes I arrange other people’s words too. Part of my job involves proofreading news scripts in order to create block captions for the hearing impaired. The scripts are a linguistic train wreck of spelling errors, misused apostrophes and dangling modifiers. The other day I came across a script in which the word ‘ultimately’ was spelled as ‘altermatiley’. I had some trouble parsing the sentence until I read it aloud.

I like beautiful sentences. As a reader, I roll them around in my head for days. As a writer, I want to understand their architecture. I also like learning foreign languages. I’m a terminal nerd. I have favourite combinations of kanji, the ideographic characters that comprise one of the Japanese scripts. (Number one is 虫歯, or mushiba, whose kanji individually mean ‘insect’ and ‘tooth’, denoting ‘dental cavity’.)

I want to treat language with respect. But I also want to respect the people who use it. And this is why no linguistic error will ever make me roll my eyes more than miserly nitpickers – often anonymous – who take it upon themselves to correct others’ spelling, grammar and punctuation online.

Call me a Gen-Y heathen, but unless I’m asked to edit the text, I take a descriptivist approach to language. I have a copy of the Style Manual above my desk and I know a bunch of the Macquarie Dictionary’s rules on hyphenation by heart, but I see no value in correcting other people’s Facebook posts or comments on articles.

Plenty disagree with me. ‘People who write “a lot” or “allot” on the internet, when they mean “a lot”, should lose their benefits,’ writes a commenter on a Bronwen Clune article in The Guardian. It’s a statement that’s almost absurd enough to be funny, but it’s also an elitist attitude that’s dangerous across several axes.

Obviously, stepping in to point out a fellow contributor’s error of expression has the potential to derail the discussion at hand. More than that, though, it risks shutting out others from the conversation at a broader level. One of the biggest problems with calling out someone else’s ‘mistakes’ online is that most of the time, you’re wagging you’re finger at a complete stranger with zero knowledge of them or their background.

It’s certainly not impossible, but it can be difficult to master the ins and outs of conventional English without formal education. But education itself is a privilege. When grammar snobs (or language bullies, to borrow from Slate) correct someone else, they assume that the perceived perpetrator of the mistake had access to education – which, in turn, is often linked to class privilege. My grandmother received little formal education. When relating a story verbally, she typically uses the construction He come in here when she means He came in here. She’s a voracious reader; she would have read and heard the ‘right’ construction thousands of times, and no doubt used it herself. But the error is a marker, common enough to her generation, identifying her as a working-class speaker of Australian English.

Her phrase is wrong if we interpret grammar in its narrowest sense: a set of codified rules agreed upon and intended to create meaning in sentences. But it could also be considered a form of dialect – and dialects vary, by definition, across regional, social, racial and ethnic dimensions. There’s stigma attached to any expression that falls outside what is considered ‘standard’ English. African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, for instance, is all too frequently conflated with linguistic incompetence or laziness, when it, of course, adheres quite strictly to its own rule set – albeit a different rule set from Standard American English.

So there are racial and class-based dimensions to grammatical pedantry. I could also mention non-native speakers of English, or those with a learning disability like dyslexia or a visual processing disorder, but it feels redundant to say that dismissing either of these groups as ‘lazy’ English users is offensive and wrong.

More broadly, however, there’s a bizarre assumption that standard language use equates to a better argument. Certainly, plain English often lends greater clarity to writing. I also accept that for many, conventionally punctuated writing is easier to read, and therefore more digestible. But the critical thinking required to formulate an opinion or response is quite separate from the ability to spell or punctuate correctly, and language sticklers who choose to point out a ‘your/you’re’ error, rather than engaging in discourse, do themselves – and everyone else – a disservice.

What many pedants seem unable to grasp is that like any dialect, online communication, too, has a grammar of its own. Digital text and instant messaging produces idiosyncratic styles of expression. My own text messages are littered with ellipses and typos. If a word is capitalised, it’s probably because the iPhone’s autocorrect feature has done it on my behalf, right before it changed all the ‘ducks’ to ‘trucks’. This is partly to do with register. Slipping between registers is second nature for me, and necessarily so: in the same hour I might plausibly engage in formal academic writing, text messages with friends, an email to an editor and a phone call to my insurance company. Just as I wouldn’t pitch an article written in internet shorthand, nor would I compose a text message soliloquy to tell a friend I’ll be at the pub in 10 minutes.

‘New media’, as boomers are so fond of calling it, is marked by immediacy. Sometimes that makes users sloppy with language. We trip over our words in our haste to get them out. We don’t always care what shape they take. But sometimes, the choices we make with our language are far more deliberate than we realise. Internet communication is fast, and we’ve developed a new grammar to deal with it. The linguistic Old Guard writes off certain patterns as being erroneous or remiss, but those fluent in online grammar can identify the techniques used to imply particular tone or emphasis in the right contexts. Where corporate digital etiquette advice has long been to avoid emails in all-caps as it resembles ‘shouting’ or an aggressive tone, in casual instant messaging or tweets, a string of capital letters (sometimes shot through with typos or exclamation points) is usually indicative of excitement, as if the writer is so thoroughly wound-up that their hands are trembling and they’re unable to type. Abbreviations created years ago – then deemed unfashionable, then ironically re-adopted, then wholeheartedly embraced once again – have taken on a referential quality: ‘smh’ represents mild disdain; ‘lol’ a polite acknowledgement of another person’s attempt at humour. It feels a little silly to be breaking it down this way, but when old-school purists dismiss internet-speak, they ignore its rules and nuances, developed over time the way Standard English has.

The only time I like seeing someone nitpick spelling and grammar in the comments section is when it’s one pedant calling out another. No one is infallible. We all make mistakes. Last week I had a long hard think about the difference between ‘papal’ and ‘PayPal’. To my former editing teachers, I apologise. To any prospective employers, I look forward to discussing my skills with you.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jennifer Down is a writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, Overland and Kill Your Darlings. Her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, will be published by Text in 2016.

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Comments

  1. Frequently at my university’s beer club we end up debating the issue of spelling and grammar errors in scientific papers we have had to review, and I often end up agreeing with the argument you’ve put forth here. It’s all about the degree to which you’re going to push grammatical pedantry, and I think crucifying people for certain errors is probably more about big-noting the reviewers knowledge of The Queens English rather than the linguistic crime itself. Also we native English speakers got a damn good deal suddenly having the whole scientific community deciding to use our language to communicate scientific findings, so a little humbleness on that front wouldn’t go astray. In fact that is the topic of a very good paper, in fact!

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534710001564

  2. Parsing? That’s something my gramma did in school. Who made the rules of English anyway, often translated from dead languages where the rules did apply, but not necessarily in English but are enforced anyway by grammar nazis as a power thing, and where too, oftentimes, there are more exceptions to the rule than applications? Probably be redundant soon anyway, when we move to oral interfacing, and all have microchips inserted in our bodies from birth.

  3. ‘He come in here’ in stead of ‘he came in here’? Jesus, I have never heard that in my life, where is she from?

  4. I’m really glad you took up the strands of race and class in this. The understanding of what constitutes ‘correct’ English invariably seem skewed towards particular varieties of English (UK English, North American English), to the exclusion of other varieties of English “as she is spoke” elsewhere in the world (India, Malaysia and Singapore, and sometimes even varieties of Australian English). Prescriptivists never seem to be able to accept the incredible richness, variety, and flexibility of the English language, or the way it has for centuries shown a tremendous capacity for change (as, I suppose, all languages do). But yeah, great piece!

  5. To Sandra, re “he come in here”, the article says the author’s grandmother is using Australian English. I’m from the north-west of England and my grandma used to say that often too. (And I’m not sure that I haven’t used it from time to time.)

  6. “One of the biggest problems with calling out someone else’s ‘mistakes’ online is that most of the time, you’re wagging you’re finger at a complete stranger with zero knowledge of them or their background.”

    Nice one. ;)

    Good piece. Glad you pointed out class privilege, which I also agree is an important (yet often overlooked) feature of English-language pedantry. There is oftentimes a kind of linguistic imperialism (which English already asserts, anyway) when other kinds of Englishes—besides standard British and North American English—are dismissed.

  7. Great article, in that it made me look at my prejudices and have a good think about them. Thanks!

  8. Thanks for the article! It’s nice to see that someone is trying to treat language with respect. I’m a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and it’s really hard for me to see that nowadays most people in Ukraine and Russia do not know even the simplest grammar rules. As I read much it’s always painful to see silly mistakes made by seemingly educated people.

  9. I think when you get use to the internet you will realise that it is much vaster, a much bigger concept than a library and therefore it isn’t sensible to suggest there is one internet-speak or that it is all immediate. Everything of life is there, slow, fast and in between – and this blog. Sure clarity isn’t important if the comment is just disposable crap like much of it is but I think you under-play the slowness of the net due to poor expression. I don’t read sentences that are all caps – they are awful to read and the person has already been shown disrespect not excitement. I practise (or is it practice) good grammar because I have cognitive disabilities (eg effect proofreading) and write to challenge people’s thinking which isn’t possible with obvious mistakes. When your comments expose yourself to ridicule you have to get the grammar right or it will inflame the bullying. And if the grammar makes you slightly wrong on a touchy topic, then it is war. Grammar is marker of how serious you are about what you are writing.

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