Friday, December 9, 2011

Copyeditor's Eye for the L33t Guy

A little while ago a Facebook friend posted this image as her status.

It led to a smug little thread that began with "ZING! Nice comeback by whoever posted the response to that dolt. [chuckles]" "'Dolt'?" I asked in a comment. "Yup," said my friend. "Nope," I said. She conceded that the questioner was at least "aspiring."

I myself am a recovering grammar neurotic, and stuff like this annoys me too. But referring a poor speller to the dictionary isn't going to do any good, and as the reactions to the post show, 1) they mainly took pleasure in the fantasy of humiliating the questioner; and 2) they assume that he or she spells badly just to piss them off. I can't be sure in every case, but I have the impression that many people who react so vitriolically to language mistakes and variation also feel superior to hate-filled fundamentalists who refuse to recognize that Christianity is about love. Yet these grammar berserkers show precious little fellow-feeling, let alone love, for people who don't meet their (often mistaken) standards for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Of course, they pretend otherwise. Here's a classic example, from comment under a post on punctuation at Dennis Baron's Web of Language:
I do think education is a class marker, in that if people want to move up economically/socially/whatever, they have to have a fair amount of education (one-offs like Bill Gates aside). And I think my job as a teacher, especially in a community college, is to help my students join the "company of educated men and women," as a university graduation speaker I once heard said. I can't change the larger social structures that govern so much of our lives--too old for Occupy Wall Street, alas. But I can try to make sure my students do not foreclose their options. That is why I also teach Shakespeare--
I'm not sure how studying Shakespeare opens up one's options in the job market. Certainly speaking or writing Elizabethan/Jacobean English is not going to help one fit in either socially or economically in today's world. I can also report from experience that the "company of educated men and women" contains a good many people whose grammar, spelling, and punctuation are less than exemplary. (Teresa Nielsen Hayden noticed that too.) To be fair to the commenter, I agree that how a person uses punctuation, spelling, and grammar -- henceforth PSG -- is a class marker, and a sympathetic teacher will try to help her students master those skills. (I think Professor Baron agrees too.) What I'm getting at is that this won't be achieved by making students feel stupid because they lack those skills. Traditional methods, like ruthless red-penciling of student writing, or shaming students who have difficulty in those areas, are counterproductive as well as inhumane. (That is, perhaps cruelty to students could be excused if it was the only way to teach them, but it isn't, and it doesn't work; so I have to suppose that it has other functions.)

The late David Foster Wallace wrote a long essay, "Authority and American Usage," in which he also claimed that requiring his students to master PSG was just for their own good, because other people will look down on them and they won't be able to get good jobs. He began the essay with an account of his and his family's PSG obsessiveness, which indicates that he was part of the problem. People look down on other people for all kinds of reasons. PSG errors (granting for the sake of argument that what enrages us PSG obsessives are errors, which is often open to dispute) are not good reasons. If people can't spell, punctuate, or negotiate the toils of standard grammar because they were inadequately taught, the decent and humane reaction is sympathy -- not condescension ("He can't help it, poor dear, he's from the slums") but sympathy because they were deprived of basic education. That so many people react with fury and contempt, feeling and expressing a desire to rub such people's noses in their deprivation, indicates that something other than concern about miseducation is involved.

Often such people claim that they "can't understand" these grubby illiterates' gibberish. Here's a mild example, from the message boards at Cecil Adams's The Straight Dope, from a correspondent who "
cannot help getting angry about the poor educational standards shown by some people on other bulletin boards."
Here is an example from one of the contributers after I had complained that I could not understand what he was on about ( By the way I am not a teacher ) :-

"Why would i need to improve my grammer? im in a good job earning a rather good crust, drive a 360 ferrari - this is ONLY a internet forum m8 no need to get so up tight about peoples spellings etc etc, i left school quite a while ago to start a business... Im glad i did cos people like u annoy me (teachers)

thank u please "
First, notice "contributers": there is an Internet law, known under various names, which holds that anyone who points out other people's PSG errors will make at least one of his own in doing so. Second, I can understand what the "contributer" wrote very easily. That may be partly because I'm a fluent reader, and good readers do a lot of error correction automatically, often without noticing that they're doing it. If the guy who's complaining can't understand him, he's the one who has "poor educational standards."

More virulent was one of Bill Cosby's rants against other African-Americans some years back.
It's standing on the corner. It can't speak English. It doesn't want to speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk. "Why you ain't, where you is go, ra." I don't know who these people are. ... Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't land a plane with "why you ain't" ... You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. There is no Bible that has that language.
Michael Eric Dyson quoted that, and much more, in Is Bill Cosby Right? (Basic Civitas Books, 2005, pp. 57-8), and then pointed out with great compassion that Cosby used to know better. In a 1969 interview quoted by Dyson, Cosby said:
Black people from the South have a common accent; it's almost a foreign language. I can't speak it, but I understand it, because my 85-year-old grandfather speaks it. I remember hearing him use the word "jimmin" and I had to go up to my grandmother to find out what he was saying. She told me he was saying "gentlemen." That was black; it's the way my grandfather talks, the way my Aunt Min talks, because she was down South picking cotton while I was in Philadelphia picking up white middle-class values and feeling embarrassed about hearing people talk like that and wanting to send them to school to straighten them out. I now accept this as black, the same way I accept an Italian whose father from the old country has a heavy accent [78-9].
Cosby himself speaks Black English, though with a less "heavy accent." He also "dropped out of high school after he flunked the tenth grade three times" (Dyson, 60). It would be easy to say that his grandfather and Aunt Min were poor because they were uneducated and didn't speak standard English, but in their day it didn
't matter how they spoke. His grandfather must have been born in 1884 or so, when American racism was in full flower.

So, first, I don't believe my fellow PSG obsessives when they claim not to be able to understand people who speak or write nonstandard English; if they can't, it is they who suffer from some kind of impairment. Second, the hostility many PSG obsessives exhibit towards people who make PSG errors is hard to square with their frequent expressions of concern for people with "poor educational standards" who won't be able to get a good job because they're stupid.

Let me try to make myself clear: I agree that PSG mastery is a class/status marker, and not only in English, so I agree that education should involve helping students to acquire such mastery. (The reader will notice that this blog is, for the most part, written in standard English, and as a PSG obsessive, I always correct errors in old postings when I find them. Despite this, I remain low-class.) The educational critics I most admire also agree. What I'm saying is that the kind of hostility exhibited by my Facebook friend, her commenters, and so many other PSG obsessives is a moral failing. Especially creepy is the tactic of pretending that they wouldn't make a big deal out of it, but other, less enlightened people out there would.

Some years ago I was reading an exchange on marriage between Chinese and Caucasian Americans in an online forum. A couple of people argued that it was a bad idea because the kids would be picked on. (There was also some pious concern that the kids would be confused about their identity, since they'd be caught between cultures.) It occurred to me that this was a classic case of blaming the victim. "Why not pick on the bigots?" I asked. One person said that that had never occurred to her; nor, evidently, had it occurred to anyone else. People may cluck their tongues over vulgar racism and other forms of bigotry, but like the weather, they never do anything about it: like the weather, it's a force of nature or something. But bigotry is a lifestyle choice, and especially bigotry directed against children for the crime of having picked the wrong parents. People who indulge in it should be picked on, ostracized, shunned. The fact that few people are willing to do that indicates the shallowness of their disapproval of bigotry: they don't really see it as a moral failing, they see it as at worst an eccentricity, somewhat vulgar and a bit embarrassing, but not anything to get worked up over.

I disagree very strongly. Bigotry needs to be stamped on whenever it raises its head. That means racism, sexism, and antigay bigotry, but it also means people who throw a tantrum over misused apostrophes or misspellings, and who think that making fun of the offender is good dirty fun. I think that picking on bigots is good dirty fun, and more people need to take it up.