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Ethical Language: An English Major’s Critique of the Facebook Grammar Nazi

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Kevin: Happy Birthday Big Sis! You’re basically a grandma now!

Me: You’re basically a punk! Haha. See you soon!

Me, a minute later: Also, you should probably reconsider any aspirations you may have had for a career writing Hallmark cards.

Kevin: Well you know! Haha I look forward to it! When I saw you commented again I was honestly scared my grammar was bad or something! I’m so relieved to know it is merely just another career path I am not headed down.

The above is a Facebook exchange I had with my brother on my 22nd birthday, and his response disturbed me. And then it got me thinking. I’ve spent the last four years studying English, but what does that mean for life after graduation? Do I have an obligation to the English language? If so, what might that look like? Do I want my own brother to be scared when he talks to me?

The stereotypical English major caricature would suggest that my duty is to vigilantly preserve the integrity of English wherever I go because the fate of the world depends on the general population’s ability to distinguish there, their and they’re, its and it’s, who and whom. But is that really the kind of English major I want to be?

Those sound like private questions, but I want to share my thoughts with you because that stereotypical English major caricature seems to have invaded Overheard at Calvin this year and I want to put in my two cents and maybe even play a small role in making the debate between correctors and “correctees” a little more constructive.

I was surprised to find myself just as annoyed as anyone else about the grammar policing (as in, “Wait a minute, I’m an English major; shouldn’t I be happy that people care about using good English?”), but now that I’ve figured out why, I hope my reflections can provide a thoughtful counter to the current culture on Overheard at Calvin, start some conversations, and encourage us all to think about the way we use language every day, because language is a powerful thing.

I want my use of language to be governed by respect, clarity and relationship-building, all serving the overarching goal of good communication. The ability to speak Standard English without error is important, of course. In formal situations and conversations with those in authority, speaking correct Standard English is a way to show and earn respect. Also, because such relationships tend to be structured and formal, adhering to the boundaries and protocol that support that structure allows for the relationship to develop.

However, in informal and peer-to-peer situations, “proper English” does not carry the same respectful connotation, nor does it facilitate relationships in the same way. In these casual situations, the respectful and friendly thing to do is to focus more on what someone says rather than how they say it. I would consider constantly correcting friends’ grammar in casual conversation to be disrespectful. And there is no doubt that such an approach has a strong tendency to inhibit communication among peers, which is poisonous to relationships.

It’s difficult to communicate and build relationships if your friends feel the need to watch their every word around you. I know what this feels like. During an intense card game with some English major friends, I finally managed to have a respectable hand. After counting up my score, I exclaimed, “I did good!” Almost immediately came the response: “well.” The correction wasn’t intended maliciously, but I said very little for the remainder of the game.

My embarrassment was probably heightened by the fact that having one’s grammar corrected by a fellow English major makes one feel like a bad English major, but I suspect that when non-English majors are corrected, they also feel embarrassed and like bad English speakers. This is not how I want to treat people with my words.

“But wait,” you may say, “you also said something about clarity a little while ago, and isn’t good grammar critical for clarity?” Well, to an extent. But it is important to realize that “grammatically correct” and “clear” are far from synonymous. If you have ever tried to transcribe or read a transcription of an interview, you are already aware that we constantly and effortlessly process and understand very fragmented and error-filled speech every day.

And if you’ve ever read high-level literary criticism, you are already aware that it is all too easy to write a flawless sentence that no one can understand. Grammar mistakes can, of course, obscure meaning, and in such instances, asking a friend to clarify what he or she meant is both appropriate and very different from being a grammar vigilante; such a request is marked by respect and a desire for relationship, to really understand what another person is trying to tell you.

Language is something of a miracle. We are able to understand not just perfect sentences, which would be miracle enough, but also all manner of irregularities — accents, slang, dialects, mistakes, new words, changing usage, the efforts of ESL speakers — without explicit training in how to decipher such things. Part of the beauty of language is its flexibility; English has successfully survived plenty of mistakes and changes over the centuries, and will continue to do so. So if you understand what your friends tell you, let the mistakes go. And have a little fun. Experiment with language even if it means making some mistakes. Make up some new words. Play. Just maybe not in your next job interview.

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