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What grammar pedants and fashion victims have in common

No platform shoes for pedants. Pavel Savchuk/

Language pedants who take pleasure in policing other people’s use of grammar often have an air of respectability about them, but it’s usually a sheen hiding something more pernicious. Rather than actual rules of language, pedantry deals in half-truths, conventions and arbitrary shibboleths which are too often used to embarrass or undermine.

Remember this if you get pounced upon by a pedant on National Grammar Day.

People often liken the idea of wearing smart clothes to a job interview with the idea of using a particular type of “smart” or formal language. But this analogy can go further: I would argue that many of the conventions that so upset the language pedants (split infinitives or insisting on “whom”) are often no less arbitrary than fashion conventions.

If your shoes and handbag don’t match, both items will still be entirely practical. In the same way, ending a sentence with a preposition – location words such as on, in – will not make the message less understandable, yet both, to pedantic minds, show a disregard for what is right and proper.

Split infinitives and matching socks

There is nothing wrong with having a preferences in clothes or in language. You can even offer well-meaning advice about whether this tie goes with these socks or whether it’s acceptable to use the passive voice … as long as that advice has been asked for.

The problem, for language at least, is that the advice is often unsolicited, mocking criticism that simply fuels the self-importance of one person at the expense of the other, completely ignoring the context in which the language is used.

English does have rules, lots of them, like the plural of nouns usually ending in “s” or the order of adjectives. But these aren’t the rules that pedants generally think about. Instead, they despair at the natural process of language change in which a word can literally change its meaning, or else they focus on stylistic preferences such as my ignorance in starting the previous sentence with “but”, or whether “none” should take a singular or plural verb.

Well-known pedants believe there is a “correct” version of English in which these conventions are rules which must be followed in order to communicate effectively. Yet these rules are often examples of an 18th-century obsession with fixing English in relation to Latin grammar. The Times columnist Oliver Kamm identifies Robert Baker’s 1770 Reflections on the English Language as the earliest book on “correct” grammar, and suggests that the advice offered has changed little in 250 years.

Pedantry-led guides on English usage invariably see the need to “fix” the language in a particular state (usually the state it was in at the time the pedant learned “the rules”). But this is not how English works.

There are many varieties of English, all of which are of equal communicative value and complexity. Standard English (the variety of English we generally expect to see used in the media, in government, and in education) is simply one of these varieties that happens to enjoy a privileged position. Nobody would deny the importance of being able to use Standard English, but we shouldn’t fall for the myth that it is inherently better than any other variety.

Instead, we should be guided by (and teach others) what is appropriate in a given context, rather than by unfounded notions of correctness.

Youth speak

Nowadays, spotting “bad grammar” has become an internet pastime – just see how many Twitter bios mention “grammar police”.

Young people are easy targets for these, and more extreme, kinds of language policing. Although this is nothing new (watch the linguist John McWhorter’s brief history lesson below), texting, social media and certain music practices have created an particularly focused breed of moral panic.

Txting is killing language. JK!!!

In 2013, the British MP David Lammy publicly backed an initiative to ban certain slang words in a London school, claiming: “Too often I see young people going into job interviews … without being able to use correct English”. This reflects a wider belief that young people using slang are literally talking themselves into unemployment.

But this contrasts with findings from my own project, UrBEn-ID, which looks at the language of young people excluded from mainstream education. My colleagues and I conducted and analysed realistic mock college interviews and spoke to admissions tutors and career advisers who dealt with these young people. It seemed clear that they are more than capable of using language that is appropriate for the context, with the slang seamlessly making way for the standard. Less “Yes bro, I been there for time, you get me”, and more “I’ve been there for a while, yes.”

I can only assume that most people who comment on youth language are doing so from their encounters with young people at the bus stop, walking through the park, or on television. Admittedly, when I later met our participants waiting for a bus, I discovered a very different side of their linguistic repertoire – but this was not a job interview. One of the young people we spoke to said that in an interview he will simply “switch it up quick”.

Language pedants are not generally bad people, but they are misguided. They live in a world that is black and white, in which language can be right and wrong. Maybe, on National Grammar Day, we should all befriend a pedant and ask them not to judge so much, irregardless of what they think is right. Or whether their socks match.

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