Psycho Babble

The Liberal Grammar Fanatic

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Why do grammatical errors turn Jekylls into Hydes?

By Jessica Love


 

You can find him in the café down the street, the one that serves fair-trade coffee and takes a dollar off if you donate a canned good at Christmas. Look for him at the school fundraiser, the Obama rally, the gay pride parade, the ethnic arts festival. He’s the one championing—sometimes fashionably, often genuinely—a just, diverse, and open-minded America.

And he’s the one who passes a misspelled sign on the florist’s door and spends the next 10 minutes hating the world and every last moron in it. He is the liberal grammar fanatic (LGF), and he is, at least in my circles, ubiquitous.

One needn’t be a liberal to be a grammar fanatic. Nor need one be a grammar fanatic to be liberal. It is easy to imagine a world in which the two are independent, orthogonal, like rolling a die and then rolling it again. Indeed, this world is probably our own.

And that is what’s so bizarre. Language use varies along the same factors—class, race, ethnicity, region, age, gender—as other cultural practices and markers. Yet, many self-proclaimed liberals disparage others’ language with a fervor they’d never use to criticize the same people’s music, clothing, diet, spending habits, or parenting techniques.

Consider. The LGF judges the contents of his neighbors’ shopping cart: Spam, Coors, and white bread—nary an organic vegetable in sight! But the sight doesn’t cause him actual pain. God help us all, however, if the meat counter advertises that “theirs a special” on drumsticks.

If it were merely misspellings or misplaced apostrophes that drove the LGF to anger, the matter would still be of some curiosity. But other nonstandard English, including dialectical variations (e.g., aksed for asked in Black English) or new uses for old words—literally nothing raises hackles more than hearing literally used as an intensifier—are also anathema. An anonymous correspondent once informed me that I was “a conformist, puerile, and desperately needing to be accepted” after my defense of the quotative like, a construction that supposedly demonstrates “how college students cannot complete or articulate a declarative sentence with thought provoking language.” I cannot speak to my correspondent’s politics, but rage was certainly present.

Guys and gals, this is diversity, plain and simple! This is what linguistic diversity looks like. So why might this blind spot persist among otherwise liberal men and women? Why do we care so much when people speak or write differently than we do?

Hypothesis 1: Liberals like to read, and therefore identify with the English language as depicted in the literary canon. As Meghan Daum might put it, English is their bag! Liberalism, then, does not cause their grammar fanaticism; the two simply cluster together (at least more than one might expect) thanks to a mediating factor, much like hot days and ice-cream headaches.

Hypothesis 2: Liberals want to let loose too! Liberals can and do criticize the cultural practices of others, but only after hemming and hawing extensively about privilege and education and opportunity. It is exhausting to be so thorough in one’s social critiques: why not let loose one’s baser self where it is still considered acceptable to do so?

Hypothesis 3: Liberals hate obfuscation, and standard usage makes ideas easier to understand. Perhaps you have been bewildered by txtspk, or chuckled over those “but for a comma” cartoons (Let’s eat grandpa!). Compelling, no? Never mind that confusion and ambiguity can arise from standard usage too—consider, for instance, the three distinct interpretations of the perfectly grammatical Let’s eat the chicken on the table with silverware.

Hypothesis 4: Liberals believe that the pervasiveness of nonstandard English is yet another symptom of the triumph of anti-intellectualism in America. The use of nonstandard English, be it a careless typo or the regionalisms of one’s own dialect, is intellectually lazy. It serves as a reminder—like “suburban McMansions, gas-guzzling Hummers, pop evangelicalism, the triple-bacon cheeseburger, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?, creation science, waterboarding, environmental apocalypse, Miley Cyrus, and the Iraq War,” to quote William Pannapecker—that America is as dumb as ever.

Each of these hypotheses may in part explain the existence of the LGF, but it seems to me that only the last can explain the irrational ass-hattery that occasionally befalls him. What do you think? What about grammar does this to us?

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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