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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Grammar still matters, some

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 01:30 pm

Don't put that comma there where it's supposed to go, you racist!

An "antiracist" poster in a college writing center insists American grammar is "racist" and an "unjust language structure," promising to prioritize rhetoric over "grammatical ‘correctness.’"

The poster, written by the director, staff, and tutors of the University of Washington, Tacoma’s Writing Center, states "racism is the normal condition of things," declaring that it permeates rules, systems, expectations, in courses, school and society.

"Linguistic and writing research has shown clearly for many decades that there is no inherent ‘standard’ of English," proclaims the writing center’s statement. "Language is constantly changing. These two facts make it very difficult to justify placing people in hierarchies or restricting opportunities and privileges because of the way people communicate in particular versions of English."Hoo boy. We might not say the writing center's declaration is itself racist, but it does seem a clear example of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." If minorities don't have to live up to the universal standard, what does that say about your opinion of their abilities?

And there is a universal standard. The rules of grammar aren't quite as rigid as some people insist, but there are rules. Yes, "language is constantly changing," but it tends to be by slow evolution rather than sudden, dramatic shifts. I realize that in the tweet/text era of abbreviations, shorthand and symbolic writing, the evolution is probably speeding up. But there still is an "inherent standard of English" even for those who don't think it can be justified.

Grammar isn't racist, but it is elitist, and I confess to being an elitist. My father had a sixth-grade education, and my mother dropped out of high school to get married in her sophomore year. Most of my aunts and uncles didn't have a great deal of education, either. As I was learning the proper way to write in school, it was increasingly embarrassing to see the way my family members wrote, and I was determined to always get it right. I guess I turned into a bit of a grammar snob, maybe even a grammar Nazi. I judged people by their usage, and, in a related area, their spelling. I thought less of people who didn't get it right, so much so that it was hard sometimes to see their qualities that might be positive.

I've softened over the years.

One reason is that I've learned it is dangerous to be a snotty, condescending know-it-all, because there is always something you think you know that just isn't so. For example, we've had pronoun-antecedent agreement drummed into us since grade school. But it turns out that the  singular "they" has a long history, and has been used by many good writers. Sometimes, it's the best way out of a sentence when you don't know the sex of the person being written about or when the antecedent includes or implies both genders. "The energetic reporter is one who is barely ever at their desk." In 2015, a group of 200 linguists even made the singular they the word of the year.

Another reason is all the years I've spent editing letters to the editor from newspaper readers. Their spelling and grammar have ranged from awful to wonderful, so each takes a different level of editing. And it has to be (or so I have always believed) light editing. The way people write helps show their personalities and individuality. If their letters are all edited the same way, to conform to the standards newspaper writers themselves must meet, then all contributions in the letters section will sound like they was written by graduates of the same liberal arts college. Along the way, I've learned that people can have shaky grammar and good ideas.

But those ideas don't come through as well when they aren't articulated well. Which is why I've retained some of my grammar pedantry. The purpose of language is to communicate, and communication is most effective when we're all using the same rules. In speech and informal writing, we ain't needin' to be worried about relaxing or bending the rules a bit. But in formal writing, where the purpose is to sell an idea, grammar is the best sales tool we have.

Back to the writing center's "racist grammar." I assumed on seeing the headline and reading the first few paragraphs that they were talking mainly about how they would judge student writing when they judged "rhetoric over grammatical correctness.' But it seems they're going even further:

"We promise to emphasize the importance of rhetorical situations over grammatical ‘correctness’ in the production of texts," announces the poster. "We promise to challenge conventional word choices and writing explanations."

So even textbook authors won't have to concern themselves with that pesky "inherent standards of English." That school really, really isn't doing those students a favor. Go ahead and send them out in to the real world with a better appreciation for rhetoric than for grammar, and see how far they get.

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