Thursday, March 19, 2015

There is no "proper English"

That’s the title of a Wall Street Journal article by Oliver Kamm. Horrors! For a dyed in the wool grammar geek and word nerd, this article is hard to take.  In fact, I’m downright grouchy about it. The premise?  “If people say it, it’s the right way to speak.”  That’s a bridge too far for me.  I can agree that some rules should die a natural death, like the prohibitions against split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition.  Those rules result in some pretty stilted sentences, but Mr. Kamm begins to lose me when he asserts: 
The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions: An example would be the use of a double negative (I can’t get no satisfaction). It makes complete grammatical sense, as an intensifier. It’s just a convention that we don’t use double negatives of that form in Standard English.

Sorry, using a double negative is acceptable?  I can’t go there. He also thinks that using a plural pronoun to reference one person is fine, as in “the cyclist rode ‘their’ bike too fast.” His rationale is that if most people do it, then it’s proper:

It is possible, of course, for us to make errors of grammar, spelling or punctuation. But it is not possible for everyone, or the majority of educated users of the language, to be wrong on the same point at the same time. If it is in general use, then that is what the language is.

I’m a former English teacher, but I don’t think I’m a snob, nor do I believe, as the author says, that “Pedantry is poor manners…” I still believe folks should know when to use me instead of I but don’t consider them ignorant when they occasionally mess up.  Because grammar and vocabulary are my obsessions, I want my writing to be near perfect, but I don’t hold everyone else to the standards I set for myself. Even I—do you hear the joking tone—sometimes allow a grammatical error to get by me in my writing.

I wholeheartedly agree with the author that writers and speakers must consider their audience, but how will you adjust your style for the letter that accompanies your college application or resume if you’re not well grounded in proper English to begin with? How will you speak well so that you put your best foot forward in a job interview?

I believe that those who work in corporate America and many small businesses should strive to adhere to proper English, as we’re judged by how we speak and write.  Sending out emails filled with grammatical errors or using poor grammar when speaking up in meetings will create unfavorable impressions.  How much your credibility is damaged will depend on your particular work environment, but the damage can be substantial. Just as we form judgments about people based on how they dress, we do the same for how they write or speak.  Mr. Kamm may believe, “People should not be stigmatized for the way they speak...” but the reality is we all are.

Does the fact that many people I know make the mistake of using mute in place of moot make the substitution correct?  If you follow the author’s line of thinking, I guess it does.  Why, he evens disses Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which was the standard style guide for any college writing assignment…at least in the dark ages, when I attended college.


I’m on my soapbox and close to climbing down, but first, I have a final point to make: Neither my parents nor my siblings graduated from college, but we kids were raised to value speaking and writing proper English. My degree in English may give me a slight edge, but my sisters are just as much sticklers for proper English as I am.  If that trait makes us pedants or snobs, so be it.