Speak out against policing our language

We should acknowledge the value of language as it’s actually spoken, not just as it “should be.”

Alia Jeraj

I used to be chief of the grammar police. I inherited the title from my grandma, an English major, who passed it through my lawyer mother onto me.
 
 
I grew up with people who drilled the difference between “good” and “well” into my head. My parents also reminded me constantly about the evils of ending sentences with prepositions (“I’m going with” is my mom’s least-favorite phrase).
 
 
Lately, I’ve decided to retire my grammar chief hat (friends, you’re welcome) in favor of one many more of us should begin wearing. Rather than thinking of language as having a prescriptive grammar, which dictates how we ought to say things, I’m striving to think about it with descriptive grammar. This means paying more attention to how people actually say things and placing meaning above grammatical correctness.
 
 
I’d first like to make the caveat that I do think there are spaces in which the ways we use language are as important as language’s meaning. For example, I love many of my favorite books because of their authors’ style, not their plotline. 
 
 
It’s also important to note that style is not synonymous with “perfect” grammar — oftentimes, language becomes beautiful through unconventional sentence structures or comma placements. 
 
 
But when it comes to everyday language usage, especially in conversation, I find meaning much more important than delivery. When I tell my mom about something cool my friends are doing and that “I’m going to go with,” she knows to whom I’m referring. Adding “them” to the end of the sentence would do nothing to increase her understanding of my statement. 
 
 
Perhaps I’m being lazy by leaving off the final “them” — or perhaps I’m accepting and adapting to the way languages change. Perhaps it’s both. 
 
 
Prescriptivism is based on the belief that there is one standard, capital “E” English. This is simply not true. English varies between countries and within them, just like it varies between cities, regions and cultures.
 
 
In addition to geography, education and socioeconomic situations hugely impact the language we use. As students at a highly ranked university, we’re privileged to have access to resources that help us learn and practice the rules of “proper English.”
 
 
Not everyone has these resources. Thus, in criticizing others (whether internally or externally) for what we perceive as “improper” use of “The English Language,” we’re blaming them for not having access to the advantages and experiences that we did.
 
 
Prescriptivism allows us to ignore and devalue those who do not use “proper English” and also gives us license to marginalize their opinions and experiences. Not only is this extremely unfair, it also greatly limits our understanding of the world. 
 
 
It’s time we move away from prescriptive English and embrace the diversity of Englishes that exist as being equally important, legitimate and correct ways of using spoken language. 
 
 
Alia Jeraj welcomes comments at [email protected].