September 22, 2011

Wednesday's Big Ideas: Grammar Matters... or does it?

Are u one of those people who just cant stand when one of you’re ackwaintances has poor grammer or spelling? For some people, its like nail’s on a chalkboard. Haha.

I’m one of them, absolutely. Do I feel smarter than those who can’t seem to get it together when it comes to the ‘proper’ way to write? Sometimes. Do I judge them as perhaps less intelligent or at least less educated? Probably.

Linguistics professor Jila Ghomeshi’s book Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language has an innovative take on this grammar hierarchy we seem to be living in. At Wednesday’s Big Ideas lecture, she brought up some fascinating points about how the frameworks of grammar and language define our identities and our prejudices.

Her message: There is no such thing as good and bad grammar, but simply different ways of using the language that mirror socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, age groups, etc. Grammar snobs who like to complain about how others butcher the language are displaying prejudice masked as intellectualism. Because when it comes down to it, she says arguments about how ‘proper’ grammar promotes clarity and logic in writing and speaking don’t hold water when looking at the reality of how language is used in different groups.

As brought up by some fairly distraught audience members, (this topic strikes a surprisingly emotional chord with many) the tricky thing here is finding the line between grammatical diversity, and plain-and-simple unclear writing. Perhaps many of us are too biased to make that distinction. As someone who has done editing work, this idea is huge.

So if grammar doesn’t matter, what does? Surely we can’t just lose all standards when it comes to teaching people how to communicate. Ghomeshi agrees—she says the key to effective communication through language is not about adhering to a rigid grammar paradigm. Instead, it’s about the writer’s ability to take the reader’s perspective. Basically, it's about writing (or speaking) for your audience-- a skill any good communicator needs to have.

If the audience will respond to what is traditionally considered ‘good’ grammar and formal academic language (I was about to say 'high level language' but then backspaced... there's my bias peeking through!), then that’s the way to go. But if you’re writing for an audience that can’t relate to a very formal style, sticking to it out of principal only marginalizes them and shows an inability to truly understand the fluid nature of language.

As snobby as I can be about language, I actually do see myself engaging in the linguistic flexibility Ghomeshi's talking about. When chatting with friends on the Internet or on text message, I often find myself dropping apostrophes, abbreviating words, and abandoning capital letters. This might be something a non-digital generation would not understand, and some might say it degrades the language as a whole-- but that's not true. The quality of communication is not damaged and is in fact made more efficient, in that particular context.

I’m always up for gaining more clarity on the reasons I perceive the world a certain way, and this very cute and slim book (which I picked up after the lecture) certainly gives me a lot to think about. Am I ready to fully abandon my grip on what I perceive to be the ‘right’ way to write? Perhaps not yet, but maybe by the end of the book, I will be.

-     --  Sandy Klowak

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