As an English major and future editor-in-chief of the Record, I can say that I like English grammar. I might even venture to say that I really like English grammar. It’s fascinating and complicated and has a rich history behind it all. But if there is one thing that is really sinking in this semester (shout out to Kyle’s English Language class—you’ve heard all of this before!) it’s that the habit of policing our friends’ and acquaintances’ grammar on social media is ridiculous and has got to stop.We’re probably all guilty of a post or comment along these lines at some point: “Seriously, how do people these days not even know the difference between its and it’s? It’s not that hard,” or “At least I can speak proper English and know the difference between too and to.”
Well, here’s the thing. What we are being critical of is not people’s inability to speak “correct” English, but rather their nonconformity to Standard English. We’re all experts at our language—if we practiced anything as much every day as we practice our language skills, we’d all be world-renowned. But we have been trained that there is an elite version of our language that we must use in order to be respected and accepted, and any other dialects are uneducated and unintelligent. That’s a lie. (Sorry Midwesterners, your English accent isn’t any more “pure” than any others!)
The sticky part here is that there is a huge amount of truth to the idea that your chances of being hired or of your opinion being heard are probably higher if you speak Standard English. That’s a side effect of who has historically had power, and isn’t something we can address in such a short space. Given where our language development is right now, I do believe that there is a place and a time where it’s appropriate to use a standard dialect—a newspaper, for example—but why is a whole different problem.
Within the last few decades the frequency of written communication has skyrocketed with email, texting and social media, and the English language has adapted accordingly. Without the luxury of facial expressions and tone of voice to let people know what we mean, we’ve begun adapting our spelling, punctuation and grammar to inflect the language for us and convey our tone. If asked to look at two text messages, one reading “yeah that’s fine.” and the other “Yeah, that’s fine!” we’d all know which one was annoyed and which one was cheerful. We are learning a new dialect of English—one that’s intended for written use.
So why are we so hard on people’s language online? Some people think others are just plain wrong—and maybe sometimes they are. I think the main reason is that it’s a whole lot easier to dismiss someone’s perspective if we dismiss their validity and right to speak. And that brings us onto dangerous ground. So, here are some helpful questions to ask to decide whether or not it’s okay to correct someone’s grammar on social media:
Do you know what they mean? If the answer is yes, don’t correct them. I’m 99% sure they know what the standard usage is, and they probably chose not to use it.
Is your impulse to correct constructive or destructive? If they posted, “I’m sending this letter in for my application to be President of the United States, help me make it better!” you’re being constructive. If they didn’t, you’re probably not. Don’t correct them.
Are all of the posts on your social media page perfectly in accordance with ALL of the pundit-approved grammar rules? I can tell you already the answer is no, so don’t be a hypocrite—don’t correct them.
Loosening up a little on our language use online isn’t going to send the English language off to die, no matter what some people say. Let’s save our energy for the places in the world that really need it.