When discussing grammar, most people fall into one of two camps. On one side you have the Prescriptivists, who subscribe to exactly one “correct” version of English and denigrate anyone and everyone who even considers stepping outside the boundaries. On the other side you have the Descriptivists, who argue that the correct way to use language is however it’s already being used and understood—since that, after all, is the point of language. Prescriptivists ask, What should English be? Descriptivists ask, What is English?
I studied linguistics in college. I particularly enjoyed focusing on the different dialects of English and the environments in which they’re spoken; a significant percentage of my linguistics courseload was dedicated to studying language in the context of ethnicity and society, as well as the storied history of the language itself. I definitely started my linguistics studies as a prescriptivist and quite the grammar snob, but it didn’t take me long at to realize how wrong-headed prescriptivism can be. I got into spirited debates with friends and acquaintances over whether or not African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is “grammatical” (spoiler alert: it is, but I’ll talk about that in a minute) and watched their eyes glaze over as they insisted, over and over, that it’s not “proper” English. This is incredibly frustrating.
However, though I’ve become significantly more descriptivist in my leanings, I still have prescriptivist tendencies. I guess you could call me a Prescriptive Descriptivist. Or perhaps a Descriptive Prescriptivist, I’m not sure. Here’s why.
People call AAVE ungrammatical because its structure differs wildly from that of Standard English—AAVE’s use of the “habitual be” is perhaps one of its most obvious markers, and perhaps the one most reviled by prescriptivists. AAVE speakers use “be” to indicate a (wouldn’t you know it) habitual action. What’s interesting is that non-AAVE speakers will often mess up this construction, confusing it with present tense; this shows that AAVE has rules that must be followed, just like Standard English. Consider the example below—a non-AAVE speaker might think that the black children in the experiment would use “be” for both forms, but, as the experiment shows, they don’t:
In one experiment, children were shown drawings of Elmo eating cookies while Cookie Monster looked on. Both black and white subjects agreed that Elmo is eating cookies, but the black children said that Cookie Monster be eating cookies.
I think that’s so cool. There’s nothing in Standard English verb tenses that explicitly distinguishes a habitual action; using words like “always” or “constantly” is necessary to establish that an action occurs on a regular basis. But not so in AAVE. And this is just one example of the myriad ways that dialects can actually be more evocative than Standard English. Dialects of any language are always fascinating.
I could go on and on about differences in dialects, but I won’t. What I do want to talk about is the relatively recent swing, in the popular mindset, to descriptivism. This is 100% a Good Thing, because it means that dialects of English like AAVE and Hiberno English and many others are getting recognized for what they are: legitimate alternatives to Standard English. However, despite the many positive changes that this swing toward descriptivism has effected, there are some people who still aren’t satisfied.
For example, Melissa A. Forbello at Everyday Feminism argues that “grammar snobbery has no place in the movement.” I understand where she’s coming from; it’s easy to say, “Well, you understood her point, didn’t you?” to people who criticize grammatical errors instead of engaging with what an author actually has to say. She is right to be frustrated with the people who try to shut down discourse based on what is probably a typo—that kind of attitude gets us nowhere.
However, in her article, she conflates people like that—and people who insist that AAVE isn’t “proper English”—with people who are simply tired of getting tripped up by easily fixable grammatical mistakes when they’re reading. I count myself as one of the latter, and quite frankly I rankle a bit at the implication that my annoyance when someone uses “their” instead of “there” is racist, classist, ableist, and whatever else.
I know that I come from a place of privilege. I am a white, middle-to-upper-middle-class woman who received nothing but the best education from two college-educated parents. I went to a Catholic liberal arts university in arguably the best city in the world (that would be Boston, thank you very much). I understand that the overwhelming majority of people with whom I interact on a daily basis, whether in person, on the phone, or over the internet, were not nearly as lucky as I was to be born into the privilege I have. I get that, I really do, and I struggle daily to put myself into others’ shoes when my inner grammar snob comes rushing to the surface.
There’s a very, very big difference between being straight-up prescriptivist, demanding that infinitives are never split (here’s why that’s bullshit, btw) or scoffing at the notion that dialects are just as grammatical as Standard English (which in itself is a dialect)—and expecting the material you read to have been proofread.
I’m not talking about Facebook posts or a comments section on an article or blog. Like I mentioned earlier, snarking about someone’s grammar in that context is, in all likelihood, nothing more than an attempt to shut down the conversation without engaging, and that’s reprehensible. I’m not talking about ads or puns or anything else that actually depends on small misuses of grammar to make sense.
I’m also not talking about spoken language. It’s incredibly rare that any spoken sentence not read from a script is actually grammatical. Real-world speech is peppered with “um” and “uh” and “like” and “you know,” and our brains are trained to filter that stuff out and dig into the content. This can be extremely difficult when faced with a speaker of a different dialect (or even just someone with a different accent!) but that doesn’t mean that the way they speak is wrong. And in 99.99% of cases, I would never ever presume to correct someone’s speech as ungrammatical (unless they confuse “less” and “fewer”—for some reason, that one really bugs me—but I’d only ever bother someone I knew, never a random stranger. Which I suppose is more than I can say for some prescriptivists).
What I am talking about is actual, thought-through published articles. Anything published, no matter the medium—Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog, Slate Magazine, even your own personal blog—should always be proofread. If you have the ability to write, you have the ability to proofread. And if you’re not a great writer, ask someone you know and trust to give your piece a quick once-over before you send it out into the ether. This is all I ask. (Heck, I’ll even proofread for you!)
Forbello isn’t wrong when she cites all those different types of privilege as contributors to a prescriptivist attitude. She is 100% correct to say that, in the end, the beneficiaries of the denigration of non-standard dialects are overwhelmingly white, upper class, and (probably) male. And I would never, for one second, suggest that language has never been used to oppress or abuse or disenfranchise, because it certainly has. But as a writer, whether amateur or professional, you have a responsibility to convey your message in a coherent and understandable fashion to the largest possible number of people. Grammar mistakes take away from the readability of your piece, which means fewer people will understand you and/or find you credible, which all leads to fewer champions for your cause. (Besides—what could you possibly have to gain from having mistakes in your writing?) Whatever your cause is, take enough time, effort, and pride in it to make sure your writing makes sense. Your cause—and your readers—will thank you.by