No, You’re Shit: Grammar Pedantry and Knowing Your Place

Pedantry. Ped-an-try…

The word has always reminded me of plodding feet, doggedly trudging on to stamp out the laziness and ignorance of others.

On the surface, pedantry may seem like a worthy, even noble, characteristic. Maybe a bit boring, a tad tedious or irritating at times, but doing the important legwork of maintaining standards — doing the ceaseless and thankless task of correcting, regulating and amending. Pedants often take great pride in their work.

I’ve come across many self-proclaimed grammar Nazis in my time. I’ve always wondered why anyone would be willing to adopt the term ‘Nazi’ for themselves, even in the jokey, seemingly benign context of punctuation and language rules. I think there’s something telling here, though, and I’m not sure it’s anything to be proud of. Self-labelling as a ‘grammar Nazi’ or even ‘grammar police’ suggests there’s recognition by some grammar pendants that they’re aligning themselves with a kind of strict social regulation –setting the rules and judging their use by others. It allows the pedant to take a position of superiority — to know better and therefore be better.

Have a look on social media for infinite examples of grammar pedantry in action. Those types who post about the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ on Facebook or claim that they could never go out with anyone who doesn’t know the difference between ‘whose’ and ‘who’s’ as if minor grammar errors are some measure of a person’s moral character or a ‘tell’ that a prospective romantic partner is intellectually and socially inferior.

Did you say ‘overinvested in grammar’? Then you’ll love The Apostrophiser. For over a decade a self-proclaimed ‘grammar vigilante’ has roamed the streets of Bristol, correcting punctuation on shop signs around the city.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s just a supercilious knobhead with too much time on his hands. The antics of Bristol’s grammar vigilante were even the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Apostrophiser’, summarized on the website as ‘Jon Kay meets grammar’s answer to Banksy and reveals the extent of his one man mission to improve standards’. What larks! Bristolians can sleep easier in their beds knowing that a bloke is prowling the streets at night looking for incorrect possessive apostrophes on the signage of local independent businesses.

The Apostrophiser denies that his midnight meddling is an infraction and says indignantly that ‘it’s more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place.’ Bit dramatic but then so is wandering around a city in the dead of night, dressed in black, brandishing a large wooden stick to add or remove apostrophes from Gentlemens Tailors or Grocer’s.

‘This is just wrong. It’s not meant to be like this’, the Apostrophiser laments. Is he reflecting on the resurgence of the far-right? Modern day slavery? The shocking rise in child poverty in the UK? Nope. He’s staring up at the sign on a small nail salon, ‘Amys Nail’s.’ The Apostrophiser finds this sign particularly revolting. He describes it as ‘gross’ and adds “It was so loud and in your face. I just couldn’t abide it. It grates.” Mm hmm.

He sees grammar correction as ‘a cause worth pursuing’ as if he is more of a political activist than a low level — albeit rather meticulous — vandal. And, in a way, I suppose he’d be right because grammar pedantry is a political act and it is an attempt to regulate and control the behaviour of the people around you and, most troubling, is that it’s heavily underscored by racism, classism and ableism, even if grammar pendants don’t realise it.

When I was growing up I’d become incensed by my mum’s insistence on having me check everything she wrote, even Christmas cards. She’d ask uncertainly ‘Is that alright, Kate?’ and show me her painstakingly penned message: ‘All the best, Ross and Pam’. I could never understand why she lacked confidence to write even the simplest of notes without having it looked over first. Like so many of us, I was a teenage arse-hole and so I never asked my mum why she was so anxious about her writing, nor did I spare her any patience or compassion. I’d turn down Skunk Anansie on my CD player, release an ostentatious Kevin Patterson-esque sigh, and snatch the card/letter/note from her and say ‘For God’s sake! It’s fine! You’ve barely even written anything!’ Mum would always respond ‘I just don’t want to show myself up.’

Thinking back — and now knowing my mum as more than just my parent but a person with a life of her own, a history, and a heart that can be hurt — I’m ashamed of myself for my casual cruelty towards her and my dismissiveness of the effort she put into writing even the briefest of messages. Taught at school only to speak when spoken to by an adult, mum’s generation had also been trained to believe that only ‘correct’ writing is acceptable. Any errors would be met with a hard slap to the legs or, if mistakes were repeated, multiple hard smacks with a ruler. My mum remembers the itch from those slaps after the pain and burning had subsided. She was seven. At the Secondary Modern school, teachers would read out students’ written work and make fun of it, encouraging their classmates to join in. ‘This work’, Mrs Dooley would say, ‘is a disgrace’ and read out the grammar errors she found most offensive.

Throughout mum’s school career, public humiliation was considered a valuable teaching and learning strategy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students seemed to find corporal punishment less effective than the teachers. Shirley Roebuck developed a stammer when reading her work out to the class, and Lynn Beardsley’s mum threatened Mrs. Dooley with ‘a pasting’ after a particularly energetic ‘learning moment’ had left deep welts all over her daughter’s hands.

Nowadays we’d consider violence against children to be abuse and recognise it as deeply damaging, but what about less obvious means of public humiliation dished out for grammar inaccuracies? How about responding with a withering comment on social media? Or sniggering about someone for getting a possessive apostrophe wrong? What about tutting with derision when you see ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s’? Grammar pedants have always been out and proud, brimming with intellectual and social superiority. But whose interests do they serve? Who are they taking aim at and why? What good does it do to insult, humiliate or deride someone over a grammar error? Is it really a mark of superiority to chastise and embarrass the people most likely to use unconventional expression — those for whom English is not a first language, those with learning difficulties, those without access to good educational resources?

Sanctimonious Basterds

Our Annie

My Auntie Annie (actually my mum’s auntie) was a glorious woman. We loved her deeply. She died in 2014 at the age of 89. She was hilarious, unflinchingly and brutally honest, and proper glam. One of her proudest moments was being mistaken for an advisor on the No7 counter at Boots while we were make-up shopping. My mum heard Annie’s hoot of delight — ‘Oooooh ey up! He thinks I’m a dolly bird! I’m 87!’ — from the other end of the shop. Annie was unconscious for two weeks before she died and she had lots of visitors, including her mates from the over-70s dances at the local working-men’s clubs. I knew she’d be horrified that all her dancing partners and friends would see her without her hair done and lippy on so I took to doing a bit of grooming during my time by her bed. I kept expecting her to tut, tap my hand and take the brush from me. ‘You’re doing it wrong, love. Look love, look love, you do it like this… and I’ll brush your hair while I’m at it. It looks like it’s been cut with a knife and fork!’

My Auntie Annie and my Nannan, her sister, were taken into service at ages twelve and fourteen — sold to two men from Leeds who came to Mexborough looking for skivvies. My great-grandma, Nannan Bella, couldn’t live on fresh air, especially with nine children. After all, Woodbines don’t pay for themselves! Two of her daughters were sold into service that morning — more would go the same way over the coming months — and, in addition to the fee, Bella would receive a portion of their — minimal — wages each week. So, my Auntie Annie and Nannan went into service for a well off family in Leeds, cleaning their home, making their meals, clearing their shit and piss from bedpans.

My Auntie Annie was beautiful. She deserved some respect. She’d earned some respect. She knew about important things — the essential things in life — like how to love and be loved by those close to you. She knew about honesty. She knew about loyalty. She knew about being a decent human being. She knew about creating a good life away from the shit and piss of rich people’s bedpans. She didn’t know about grammar rules.

My Auntie Annie’s notes were sprinkled with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. I loved her writing. The meaning of her words was clear regardless of the unorthodox grammar. Her writing was full of a warmth and character that conventional grammar could never communicate. When we were emptying her house after her death, I wept over the squares of torn tea-bag boxes that served as her recipe cards for ‘Appel Lofe’ and ‘Spice Bred’.

A couple of years before she died, my Auntie Annie discovered Facebook. She’d post photos of herself and her late husband, my Uncle Gib; or images of her doing the waltz at the WMC dances. There were photos of her from birthdays and Christmas — one of her laughing while tipping a top hat and kicking her leg. She was wearing the Aran cardi she’d knitted for herself. We all had one.

One of my (former) Facebook friends, a GP in Manchester, saw one of our Annie’s posts. She’d written ‘Its grate at Highgate Club’ and this bloke decided that, despite never having met my Auntie, or knowing anything about her — except that she was a Senior Citizen who liked a dance — he would write ‘Clearly more dancing classes than English lessons in Donny!’ That arrogant, rude, condescending bastard brought the end to my Auntie Annie’s first foray into social media. If Facebook was ever mentioned she’d shake her head and say that it makes people nasty. And she was right, there is something nasty about grammar-shaming and social media is perhaps an ideal vehicle for this kind of quick, ill-informed judgmentalism; user contributions are often text-based and present users as detached from their social and historical context. It encourages us to make quick judgements about others simply on the basis of brief, momentary phrases, as if individuals can be reduced to their comments on last night’s TV or a perceived mistake in writing style.

Language pedants, or self-appointed ‘grammar Nazis’, seem to take gleeful pleasure in policing others’ use of language.

And it’s chuffing everywhere.

In his excoriation of people obsessed with conventional grammar, Stephen Fry, asks: “But do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss?”

Well, Stephen should meet Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing at the University of Queensland.

Dr Petelin attempts to counter the negative connotations evoked by the term ‘grammar pedant’ by inviting her students to “invent ‘playful monikers’ … to celebrate their pleasure in language. Terms include ‘grammartiste’, ‘grammagician’, ‘grammardian angel’, ‘grammar groover’, ‘grammartuoso’ and ‘grammasseur’.

Anne Curzan, contributor to the Lingua Franca blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education, favours ‘grammando’”; Petelin, however, prefers “‘grammond’ (modelled on gourmand, ‘one who has a refined palate for grammar and savours it at its best’).” A ‘grammond’, eh? Are you sure grammar pedantry has nothing to do with class, Roslyn?

All this grammar gatekeeping may seem fine to some, even necessary, and even pleasurable; however, regardless of any intention to educate or encourage appreciation of the finer points of the English language, the grammar hardliner approach is potentially quite sinister.

Grammar pedantry hides behind a veil of being correct, objective and dispassionate but actually, it reflects the resources and preoccupations that privilege certain groups over others. For example, a male, white, middle-class GP in his thirties considers it fine to leave a disparaging comment on the post of an elderly working-class retired dinner-lady. Grammar pedantry helps those with power and privilege to keep it, not least by emphasising the difference between themselves and those less fortunate.

Maybe our intentions are good when we berate those who use unconventional grammar — but intentions don’t matter much. We rarely know what true intentions are and, anyway, it’s the effect rather than the intention that’s important. The questions to ask ourselves are: who exactly are we taking aim at? And why?

Whether we want to own up to the reality of grammar pedantry or not, those with less social advantage are usually the target. Very often, that’s minority groups, those on the margins of society, those without the advantages that come with wealth and an elite education.

Double Standards

An important point often seems to get lost in the heated debates around punctuation, grammar and spelling: there are many varieties of English, all of which are equal. ‘Standard English’ just happens to hold a privileged position.

Linguists Erin Carrie and Rob Drummond set up the Accentism Project, based at Manchester Metropolitan University to uncover and challenge accent discrimination in everyday life. Carrie and Drummond have conducted extensive research on accent bias and agree that we need to challenge the dominance of arbitrary ‘Standard English’ and encourage students to be proud of their own way of speaking. Through the Accentism Project, Carrie and Drummond found that teaching children that Standard English is superior, correct, and proper, negatively impacts their self-confidence, sense of identity and, since their loved ones will often speak in the same accent and dialect, that criticism extends beyond them and diminishes their whole family. It also risks poisoning family relationships, encouraging children to look down on their working-class parents.

For Drummond, teachers “should be focused on teaching young people to operate in standard English, yet at the same time, they should be able to do that in a way that challenges the status standard English has in the first place.”

Occasionally I’ve been accused of advocating some kind of Babel-esque dystopia where no-one can communicate because we have no shared understanding of a common language. One reader responded to an article I wrote in The Telegraph about accentism by saying that my approach to language is ‘basically a free for all, with no rules, which is all very well and right-on of you, but the children will get judged for not using proper English’. To be clear, then, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use Standard English and that we shouldn’t teach it in schools — I’m saying that Standard English is not superior to any other non-Standard forms.

Standard English became known as ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ English because of political power dynamics not because it’s somehow inherently or objectively ‘better’ than any other form of English. So, rather than teach children that they aren’t good enough, or outright wrong, if they use dialect or speak with a regional accent, why not nurture and value the language of their community — the language that reflects their background, family and identity — and teach Standard English too, as a style that’s helpful — but absolutely not superior to — non-standard forms of English. There’s room for every flavour of English but perhaps that doesn’t suit those who want to maintain a social hierarchy or those who feel superior to others?

In July 2019, the UK’s newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson made pseudo-patrician Jacob Rees-Mogg leader of the House of Commons. He was even granted a bonus title: Lord President of the Council. One of Rees-Mogg’s first moves as a senior politician was to issue a set of language rules to every member of his staff team.

Rees-Mogg’s Arbitrary Guide to Style

‘Banned’ words and phrases included, ‘hopefully’, ‘equal’, ‘got’, ‘meet with’, and ‘due to’. Rees-Mogg does, however, deem the abbreviation Esq. worthy of use. Among his recommendations, Rees-Mogg asks that “all non-titled males” are given the term ‘esquire’, after their name. Esquire is an outmoded honorific that technically designates a man below the rank of a knight. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a politician who bans use of the word ‘equal’ among his staff, there is no female equivalent to the moniker — although the MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips, started using it on her twitter profile, to take the piss.

You might think that Rees-Mogg is an easy target. He has, after all, taken a fair bit of media bashing himself. He was first elected into parliament in 2010 and quickly became something of a joke: dubbed ‘member for the eighteenth century’ because of his penchant for old-fashioned tailoring and Latin Master-esque speech and manner. Since then his Victorian ghost cabaret act has been met with delighted derision by the media and public but, although on the face of it his personal brand might seem eccentric, comic, daft or even farcical, it’s a mistake to understate the significance of Rees-Mogg’s persona. The seemingly arbitrary set of regulations he imposed on his staff is nothing to laugh about.

The establishment of rules for staff is a public exercise in the maintenance of Rees-Mogg’s brand as an upper-class eccentric and a hard-line right-wing Brexiteer.

On the day Rees-Mogg disseminated his style guide, I spoke on Radio 4’s World at One about the significance of language rules in contemporary society. The discussion ended up being a debate with N.M. Gwynne, author of Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English. Gwynne suggests that it’s essential to follow language rules because ‘clarity is everything’. Gwynne became quite riled up during the encounter and passionately argued that we should all be banging our fists on the table in fury at grammar mistakes. He also claims that social inequality isn’t a factor in learning grammar and lack of access to well-resourced education shouldn’t prevent people from learning and using ‘good English’.

Good English. Correct English. Proper English.

All terms pregnant with judgement.

Rees-Mogg’s ‘rules’ are about what’s considered ‘correct’ and ‘proper’ by those in power.

I couldn’t, and still can’t, agree that following Rees-Mogg’s list of arbitrary grammar rules makes the meaning of written messages any clearer. For example, his stipulation that staff put two spaces after a full stop hardly elucidates content. Besides, as demonstrated in many televised interviews and published articles, Rees-Mogg doesn’t follow his own style guide and regularly uses his ‘banned’ words. The fact that Rees-Mogg felt it appropriate to issue such rules reflects his own privileged position, a status that apparently carries the authority to police other people’s communication.

Rees-Mogg’s slapdash application of his own style-guide tells us something else, too. In 2014 BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman was quoted in The Guardian as saying:

“People who care about grammar are regularly characterised as pedants. I say that those who don’t care about it shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say — if indeed they are aware of what they’re trying to say.”

So few words tell us so much.

The buttressing of privilege seems to be apparent in the approaches of Rees-Mogg and Paxman. Both men were privately educated and have degrees from Oxbridge. Their shared background reflects in shared social assumptions. From the quotation above it seems that Paxman is openly disrespectful of those who ‘don’t care’ about grammar.

This is a tricksy manoeuvre by Jeremy.

By turning the issue of grammar use into one about ‘caring’ and ‘not caring’ he manages not only to side-step all the issues of inequality that skew who can use conventional grammar — those with wealthy families and access to heavily resourced education perhaps? — but also to imply that grammar usage reflects morality: those who don’t adhere to grammar rules are lazy and their views worthless.

Paxman’s quotation also betrays his understanding of the social order. He establishes himself and others who ‘care’ about grammar as those in a position of authority: they’re the ones who choose who they should listen to and on what conditions. The careless ones are those who are not respected and won’t get their voices heard unless they adhere to a set of characteristics created and maintained by people like Rees-Mogg and Paxman.

Grammar pedantry, then, fuels the self-importance of one person, or group, over another. Who is that other? Are we humiliating a Person of Colour? A refugee? Someone from a deprived background? Someone with learning disabilities?

We shouldn’t be too hasty to dismiss Rees-Mogg’s staff style and etiquette guide as merely an exercise in paternalistic eccentricity — it’s telling us something much more significant. The style guide indicates the social groups and preoccupations Rees-Mogg will privilege: it’s dog whistle politics to other hard-line right-wingers that the government is in safe hands.

Know Your Shit; Know You’re Shit; No, You’re Shit

Hilarious Grammar Pedantry Meme

Grammar pedantry is a popular past time, it seems, and it’s not just the Rees-Moggs and Paxmans of this world who love a bit of grammar-shaming.

In 2003, writer and broadcaster Lynne Truss’s lament on the degradation of English language rules in the UK and US, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation became a surprise literary hit. In 2004, the US edition became a New York Times best-seller.

More recently, Gyles Brandreth transformed himself into a self-confessed grammar-guru. Not all superheroes wear capes, folks… some wear novelty jumpers on TV-am. His book, Have You Eaten Grandma: The Life-saving Importance of Correct Punctuation, Grammar, and Good English is still an Amazon best-seller three years after publication.

The title of this chapter, ‘No, You’re Shit’, is a homage to those smug but ubiquitous social media memes about ‘The difference in ‘Knowing your shit’ vs ‘Knowing you’re shit’ that saturate our news-feeds.. Aside from being pompous twats, many of those retweeting and sharing grammar-shaming posts make plenty of grammatical errors themselves. Still, it’s always great to make yourself feel superior by making others feel shit.

The bottom line is that, regardless of grammarphiles’ desire for English to be a linguistic version of Miss Haversham and remain the same over decades if not centuries, the rules of English are dynamic, complex and diverse.

‘Standard English’ changes over time, a reality acknowledged by experts, so any illusion that it’s timeless depends on sticking to a version from one particular point in time, which is both arbitrary and reflective of the social order dominant in that particular context. In that sense, embracing a looser, more malleable notion of ‘English’ is radically more inclusive, as it permits variations arising out of different regional or cultural milieu, and variations that have evolved over time.

As Stephen Fry’s argued, the fact that language evolves and develops makes it richer and more fascinating, not less so. Hermetically sealing English into its own immortally consistent form is not only unrealistic and historically incorrect; it also takes something away from the life of language, rendering it all the more stuffy, rigid and moribund.

‘Good’ English doesn’t have to be an either/or — there’s room to appreciate and respect every variety of the language — but first we’d have to recognise and maybe even concede some of our privilege, and that, it seems, may be far too much to ask.

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Katie Edwards

Katie Edwards

Author and broadcaster. Rep’d by Jon Wood at Rogers, Coleridge and White Literary Agency. https://linktr.ee/KatieBEdwards