There has always been a great deal of debate over what is right. We have a preoccupation, it seems, with grammatical correctness. Speaking well is a matter of using the right words, pronouncing them in a certain fashion, using proper grammar. Proper writing or speech is equated with prestige, with professionalism, with being better. We consult dictionaries, grammar books, attend classes, worry about whether we are phrasing something correctly, worry about how others might judge us if we don’t. Self-styled Grammar Nazis patrol the world over for Proper English. I myself have been rather liberal with the red pen, unable to resist marking anything from misspelled signs to exam forms. I’ve liked more than one “Using Proper Spelling and Grammar” page on Facebook.
I know I’m guilty.
In fact, this sort of prescriptivism has not always been the case. Only after English’s evolution slowed and spellings became more standardized did people start intending to standardize spelling. The advent of the printing press led to a greater distribution and greater accessibility to printed material. A middle class began to form. People desired upward social mobility, observed how the well-to-do used language, and began concerning themselves with how they themselves ought to speak.
Should the debate, then, rest not on what usages are correct, but whether we ought to continue separating right and wrong? Who sets the bar? Who determines what rules are more correct than others? What’s deemed correct is by no means the most logical. However much people like to mourn the “decay” of the English language, language change is inevitable. New words and usages that appeared a hundred years ago might have been decried and met with panic and scorn, but seem perfectly normal to us today.
Recently the Oxford English Dictionary, known for being one of the more conservative, authoritative publications, made headlines for adding several new entries. These entries happened to be slang. Predictably, some people frowned, others panicked. And it is difficult, sometimes, to think about how what we’ve labored so long to learn, to perfect, to perpetuate, might really be unstable and fleeting in the long run.
At the same time, it is still probably a good idea to keep in mind that there is a fine line between using and advocating spelling and grammar that is generally agreed to be a correct standard for practical purposes (professionalism, academia, communication between different dialects, etc) and lording the correctness over others as a form of intellectual superiority. There’s an amusing meme floating around the internet called the English Major Armadillo, which features a great deal of geeking out about language and literature, and a fair share of moaning and groaning about the inability of others to use proper spelling and grammar. For the most part, it’s all in good fun.
There was a period, though, when many of the ones people were generating had the text running across the top explaining another’s grammatical mistake, for instance, and the bottom text some violent action in retaliation. The prevalence of the attitude poses the question: is it necessary, or fair, to place the greatest value on such basic mechanics? What about content, or cohesiveness, or intent? Many times, it feels as if being “good at English” translates to “good spelling and grammar.” My standard used to be “no excuse for poor spelling or grammar unless English is a second language or you have a serious disability.” But while being able to communicate cleanly and clearly is important, as may be having a standard by which to align multiple other standards, mechanics is not the only, or the most important feature of communication. We should continue to learn, use, and implement this accepted standard, but perhaps we should also consider toning down the neuroticsm.