No, Insisting on Proper English Grammar and Spelling Is Not ‘Elitist’

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Those who say it is can only hurt the very people they claim to be defending.

In an op-ed for the New York Times this past Sunday, columnist Farhad Manjoo urged Twitter users to let up on President Trump’s poor spelling in tweets, arguing that caring about spelling or grammar is “elitist,” and that linguistic propriety was unnecessary on Twitter because the platform’s brevity and immediacy make mistakes inevitable. There are a number of problems with this argument, but the most concerning is its subtle endorsement of the woefully misguided idea that the insistence on proper English is oppressive.

Manjoo arrived at the conclusion that spelling is not important after studying intelligence, interviewing an Oxford University professor, and discovering what he calls “a rich history of political misspelling.” He claims to have observed “shifting cultural attitudes” that relieve English speakers of the burden of following the rules of their language. But no matter how many Oxford professors, presidents, or intelligence studies Manjoo cites, “covfefe” still isn’t a word. Inherent in language — and especially spelling — is the need for standards.

Manjoo’s article echoes a progressive doctrine that has dominated U.S. education reform since the early 20th century. Back then, its adherents campaigned on behalf of technical classes, which eventually replaced the traditional style of teaching theoretical liberal-arts classes like English grammar with a less objective one. It is this lack of linguistic education, rather than the “shifting cultural attitudes” Manjoo cites, that is responsible for the declining attention English speakers pay to language mechanics.

So when Manjoo claims the immediacy and brevity of Twitter make grammar unnecessary, he is ignoring the reality that Twitter gave a voice to those left behind in the march toward education reform. By using “your” when “you’re” is called for, Twitter users aren’t demonstrating technical mastery of the platform, skillfully omitting letters as they near the 144-character limit; they’re showcasing their dire need for grammar education.

In fact, the “shifting cultural attitudes” argument doesn’t actually answer the question of whether proper grammar should be taught at all. It claims grammar education is unnecessary because of cultural apathy, ignoring the people who are apathetic toward grammar only because they were never taught it. The anti-proper-English crowd, it seems, cannot argue the position on its merits. To their minds, English is simply an unnecessary social construct.

But even if Manjoo and his ilk didn’t think that way, they wouldn’t give in to calls for English-education reform, because they believe that “criticizing spelling is elitist,” as a header on the Times article puts it. The idea of “proper” English carries with it an objectivity that asserts power dynamics, frightening those who believe speech is a unique part of identity. In other words, correcting speech seems to suggest the student is flawed, an idea progressives like to keep out of the classroom. (We see such a mindset today in colleges that don’t give their students grades, for example.) Instead of subjecting children to lessons based in universal “rightness” and “wrongness,” anti-standardized-grammar linguists prefer sectioning people off into groups based on how their speech differs from proper English. Judging “rightness” and “wrongness” in a smaller group helps the teacher correct language without suggesting the student is flawed. It’s as simple as replacing an external standard, which appears oppressive, with an internal one, which looks more like a guide.

The anti-proper-English crowd, it seems, cannot argue the position on its merits. To their minds, English is simply an unnecessary social construct.

Any linguist will tell you that part of what makes a language a language is nuances on the local level. Any attempt to include all English speakers in assessing and characterizing the language, however, requires an endless cycle of zooming in, identifying disagreements within the smaller group, and subdividing the group into new dialects along the lines of those disagreements. This process of speciation doesn’t empower anyone. Instead, by unspooling the language and organizing it into parts, it leaves behind a large pile of “proper” English speakers, multiplying their power by dividing the rest.

Reserving the “correct” form of language for a small group has often been used as a method of social control. Slaves in the American South, for example, were banned from English-language education, their masters fearing education would lead to freedom. (For those like Frederick Douglass who managed to receive such education anyway, it did.) The Roman Empire’s class-based language differences led to two distinct dialects of Latin: Classical, spoken by politicians, writers, and the elite; and Vulgar, spoken by everyone else.

Ultimately, the solution to the problem of poor grammar isn’t abolishing objective standards. It’s restoring traditional grammar classes to schools and ensuring everyone has the ability to speak the language the correct way. This protects against the problem of Mandarin — adjacent regional dialects becoming different languages entirely — and it hardly necessitates eliminating personalized nuance. While Manjoo believes he is helping open the world, he is actually closing it, by encouraging a deconstruction of standards that help English speakers communicate. He is engaging in forward-thinking education reform practiced by progressives in the 1900s, and helping push a message that, while politically correct, could only dumb down those already struggling to learn.


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