I kvetch, therefore I am — A grammarian’s lament.

I am a lover of language, and have been since I was a child. English, French, Greek, Latin…as I got older and was exposed through my reading and education, each piqued my interest and imagination, and indeed became useful as I entered fields of work and study like botany, zoology, classic literature and the legal and medical arenas. I innately knew how to work within the fundamental “rules” of English grammar, and could apply those rules to related languages, despite not really ever knowing what those rules were in the technical sense. But having children of my own, working with students, and just not wanting to put the “ass” in assonance has caused me to adapt the way I view language acquisition and usage. In my work as a medical/legal proofreader, there is obviously no room for things like misspelling, transposed words, lack of clarity, and other similarly correctable errors of transcription. On the other hand, there is only so much I can do about lawyers, and witnesses and experts giving testimony, who not only don’t speak well, but often speak downright poorly. I do take innocence of intent into account. A minimally educated, 85-year-old farmer can’t be held to the linguistic standard of a neurosurgeon, nor should he be. To be judicious is not to be judgmental or obnoxious. But by the same token, there’s nothing more frustrating than reading the words of an attorney or expert who’s convinced they are eloquent and have a command of grammar, when what they really have is an inflated sense of their linguistic prowess — a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Believe me, I see and hear it every day, and it’s excruciating. As the last link between the court reporters who hire me, and the court archives that will house a final trial or deposition transcript, it’s up to me to correct what I can in order to produce a final copy that will stand all tests it can undergo….including the seemingly inconsequential transcription error or un-annotated “sic” that can cost someone their freedom, their reputation, their credibility, let a perpetrator off or impugn an innocent. On the other hand, I’m not “allowed” (and nor do I have the desire to) change what the witness has to say, their “voice,” or the intent of their words. If they misuse a word, transpose two words, or mix their metaphors (which happens ALL the time), that beast must remain what it is, unchallenged, snarling fangs and warts and all. That is what the hail Mary notations of [verbatim] and [sic] are for. For example, last week a Spanish-speaking, ESL witness said the following, at least as far as it appeared on the rough transcript I received:

“I can only pick up the passenger at the bus stop they are waiting. If they become lost, they become lost. I have to keep on schedule, Jews shouldn’t slow down.”
[sic] [Translation: “You shouldn’t slow down.”]

That [sic] was my addition, of course, lest someone come back years later and accuse this poor woman of being an anti-Semite who is against hiring Jewish bus drivers…which would start “a whole nuther” lawsuit! She was simply a transit district employee, testifying about metro bus route glitches that led to mentally handicapped adults being “misplaced” around town — she was not expressing a view that Jewish bus drivers are any slower than any other ethnic group in arriving at stages along their appointed routes. Nor was she intending to say that getting lost is a magical event, or caused by any fault on the part of the would-be bus passenger who gets routed to the wrong drop-off point. Those issues of interpretation are not correctable. I have to have faith that anyone reading the final transcript understands that this bus service does not hold these at-risk individuals responsible for inflicting their own self-harm. The witness was simply expressing her frustration that she is expected to anticipate special-needs passengers, do so on time, and be accountable for the actions of people (handicapped or not) that she can’t control. In the end, an aide was added to each bus route to make sure at-risk adults were pre-screened, pre-logged, and helped to and from their scheduled stops without mishap. Boom, happy ending, albeit an expensive one for the taxpayer. For me, it stands out as a perfect example of how problematic conveying opinions and experiences can be in a multilingual society, where “rules” of grammar are affected by cultural differences. Working on depositions involving ESL witnesses, having deaf grandparents, having a sister with Downs syndrome, having my own kids and working with students of various ages, studying classic texts from Old French to Middle English…all of these have worked together to make me a more flexible, less particular judge of grammar and language than I might be if all I had in the way of experience was being reared by Oxford professors and attending elite prep schools on the Thames. Pointing out poor grammar is secondary to my role as an accurate proofreader, teacher, and member of polite society, with some experience and common sense.

BUT this leads me to a problem that I DO believe merits some purposeful discussion. I don’t want to be “the old pedant defending” the “obsolete turf” (Makow para 1) of grammatical fascism. But I run into real, solvable problems with grammar every day that I feel merit addressing, syntactical stick-in-the-mud that I might be. Sometimes it’s in a professional setting, but more often it’s in situations in which people are willingly, knowingly, maddeningly wrong, and consider that acceptable. When someone insists on using “UR” for “You are” in the course of texting, I’m not going to lie — it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. Make that fingernails up the length of my spine. It’s lazy. Is it truly expedient to shortcut one’s spelling of complete words while texting? Frankly, I doubt it. That second or two that it “supposably” (don’t even get me started on that one) takes to craft one’s texts in such a “clever” fashion cannot possibly be such a timesaver that it merits casting off the most basic lessons of spelling and grammar in the name of modernity. And the idea that text speak is now considered a burgeoning language or dialect by so-called language experts drives me up the linguistic wall! To me, calling that wrong is not a matter of snobbery or being judgmental, it’s just a matter of lamenting the lack of pride in the way one communicates, that demonstrates retention of elementary and secondary language arts education, and some esteem for the one being communicated TO — in other words, using language in a way that says, “you are important and worth my time, so I am going to take the time to communicate as properly with you as I possibly can in the context in which we’re interacting.” Yes, it can be casual, but for Pete’s sake, does it have to be inane and sloppy? So in a very real sense, I consider grammar to be an issue of respect and etiquette. Genuine constraints on the “rightness” of one’s communication — real learning issues, lack of knowledge, and such limitations — I can understand and accept those. While I will gently correct my kids’ use of text speak or correct their use of “did good” to “did well” when describing their school project, I will probably not do so with their friends, my dad, friends or strangers. When we’re talking as mom and child, sharing ideas in an intimate, creative flow, I wouldn’t dream of censoring. That’s the not-being-an-ass part, and the not-landing-my-kids-in-therapy-because-I’m-linguistically-frigid part. Hurting someone is never my intention. But what I have a hard time with is seeing how society has come to view intentional misspelling as quaint (we’ve all been in the drive-thru), clever (UB hawwwt!!), or acceptable because it is considered unmerciful to expect a higher standard from individuals who have been conditioned and encouraged to simply not care. The soft tyranny of low expectations will, over the long run, produce a society which devalues communicative expectations of any kind. What happens then? My concern is that we are already behind on the global academic and professional stage, and the last thing we need to do is fall further behind so we can feel communally “kewl.”

So while I joke a bit about being a wordsnob, the fact is that I truly care about people, especially young people, and I have a deep concern that we are settling for too little in ourselves and in the young people that will inherit the messy legacy of low-hanging linguistic fruit. Grammar, like it or not, is important. Poor grammar impedes effective communication and can cost a speaker or writer the respect they should rightly desire. Yes, again in some cases, it’s a matter of language or learning barriers, and needs to be accepted as such and not given too much thought. I do feel, though, that in general, Americans have sacrificed speaking and communicating well for looking cool — or believing one looks cool — when what one ends up doing is inviting disdain or exclusion from opportunities. In a competitive global community and economy, life-changing, sometimes one-time, opportunities can come down to which individual in a field can convey their ideas the most effectively. To the individual with a strong command of language, able to defend opinions and ideas, go the spoils of career and academic entry, success and prosperity. Fair or not, just or not, it’s a reality that individuals — and those rearing and educating them in preparation for participation in the world — must be aware of if they’re going to serve the needs and interests of future generations who will inherit the problems we encourage with our nonchalance.

Having said that, as a student teacher I am very keen on knowing where my students are “at,” what they know thus far, and no less importantly, issues of self-esteem, special needs, or any others they may have. I would no more “call out” a student in front of the class for saying “what I spent the money on” than I would for them wearing mismatched clothes. Heck, I kinda like mismatched clothes. I would, however, casually incorporate a similar example on the board to show correct usage, or tutor them after class, or correctly demonstrate on their paper where that preposition should go. In a work of fiction they are writing, I may or may not change a thing, considering context and creative license. Creative, academic and disciplinary writing are very different animals, and some animals can better tolerate being petted the wrong way than others. Teaching takes sensitivity and open-mindedness, but adherence to standards nonetheless. Churchill reportedly said tongue in cheek, that a certain misuse of language was “something up with which I will not put.” True or not, I love it, because that’s where I am at this point in my life as an educator, writer, and sufferer from hideously crafted “news” and advertising. My tolerance is being tested, but I won’t take it so seriously that I can’t laugh at my own uptightness and the situation at hand. To quote another grammatical evisceration, the present state of English “is what it is.” I just really, truly wish there was as much tolerance for its standards as there seems to be for its continuing and sometimes violent overthrow.

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