Friday, May 9, 2014

On Grammar: Snobbism/Elitism as a discrepancy in expectations

On Grammar: Snobbism/Elitism as a discrepancy in expectations

From elementary school through high school, many of us were taught the rudiments of the way the English Language worked. We also learned to write it. We did not learn a lot about speaking it because it was assumed by our teachers -whether correctly or not- that as American-born students, we knew how to speak what was then considered grammatical American English.

What we also didn't learn at the time was that there were and are many variants of English, some used in the USA, some used outside. There are spoken variants and written variants and signed variants. Often, "correct" English is the result of having been exposed to a certain educational system. There is nothing natural or egalitarian about it.

And there is no "correct" form of spoken English. Those who have spoken English as their first language and/or attend certain schools and/or have parents whose income is greater than a certain amount have learned what some people still consider standard "spoken" English, in addition to whatever dialectal variants they speak at home or in different places they visit or at places in which they work. Others mostly speak the dialectal variant(s) they have learned.

The situation changes, however, when we discuss written English.

There are formal situations in which it is necessary to describe people, things, processes or activities with great precision. These are the situations in which people one doesn't know want one to understand what they are talking about. This is best accomplished by using the diction/register and spelling most familiar to those to whom they are directing their work consider standard. Why? Because using the spelling and grammar agreed on by grammarians and teachers as standard communicates one's objectives and points as quickly as possible. It has little to do with elegance. It does have to do with making sure that the people who read one's work understand and agree about what has been written.

Let me provide an example. Say, for instance, that I am making a point about pencil erasers. I might write: "Pencil erasers originated in China in 1100 AD when a calligrapher discovered that the resin which later became rubber removed two erroneous pen strokes."  However, if I were to write, "Pensil erazers," readers of standard English -or those who were prepared to read what they considered standard English- might wonder a) if the spelling of these two words had been changed; b) if the writer was making some kind of joke c) if these were variant spellings used by someone who spoke a different dialect of English. Of course they would understand the words themselves. However, the variant or incorrect spellings would become a distraction. It might slow them down. It might annoy. The objective of using correct spelling in writing is not to make it difficult for the writer. It is to make reading  and written communication as quick and easy for most readers as possible.

If you read the Constitution of the United States in its original, you may see that the lack of standard spelling and grammar causes words to be spelled different ways from one paragraph to the next, and for voices, verb tenses and moods to be used differently from one paragraph to the next. It is to be hoped that most of those who read the Constitution understood it as the writers meant it to be understood (and please be aware that literacy in those days was limited to about a third of the population), even with the bewildering number of variants. However, as you may discover, it takes much, much longer to understand it, and it is more difficult to be sure that you have grasped the exact intent of the writer. Standardization of written language makes it easier to be more certain that the most people possible have grasped the meaning writers of written language who use these standards have attempted to communicate.

Thus when people are reading material that has been presented in a format, such as a position paper or a scientific study,which necessitates precision and clarity-especially when others need to understand quickly but thoroughly what has been written- it is important that the spelling and grammar used correspond to what those reading it consider standard. Otherwise, room for error and  misinterpretation creeps in. However, this "standard" varies from event to event and from country to country. Charges of "elitism" are often made when the standard assumed by the writer is more rigorous or unfamiliarly formal than that of the reader, or vice versa.

The best rule of thumb is for the writer to know her audience as well as possible and develop a clear grasp of the diction they find appropriate. There is no one right "standard." There is only that which is negotiated, tacitly or directly, between the writer and her audience.

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