OPINION: Edit and Delete: How Standard English grammar promotes silence

Graphic by Jordan Wong

Things that make my skin crawl: nails on a chalkboard, loud gum-chewing, and hearing someone say “less” when they really should have said “fewer.” With a former English professor for a mother, my latter pet peeve makes sense; ‘proper’ grammar has always come easily and been important to me.

As a child, I constantly corrected friends for using “I” instead of “me,” or “who” instead of “whom.” Later, peer review sessions in high school English classes provided my platforms for policing. With pen in hand, I tore apart every vague pronoun, dangling modifier, and unparallel sentence I could find.

Now, I question my urge to correct. And, to my fellow grammar freaks, I encourage you to do the same.

In the academic setting of a college campus, students and professors alike are encouraged and expected to correct the words of others, perpetuating the prominence of Standard English. While grammatically ‘correct’ writing may indeed aid students in the numerous fields they choose to pursue, we must acknowledge the plurality of languages and dialects quashed and silenced by striving for ‘Standard English.’

The United States constitutionally does not have an official language. Nonetheless, systematic linguistic hegemony permeates U.S. history.

Enslaved Africans were restricted from speaking their native languages. In the late 19th century, indigenous children were forcibly enrolled in English-taught boarding schools where use of their native language resulted in punishment.

The government-sponsored Americanization Movement of the early 20th century pushed immigrant assimilation through pressuring immigrants to enroll in English language classes.

If language has historically been used as a political tool to protect the dominance of U.S.-born white people, then grammar acts as a secondary divider to determine whose English-spoken words may be accepted as valid and whose may not.

Academia — in its expectation of Standard English, in its condemnation of ‘improper’ grammar and ‘incorrect’ spelling — may then be viewed as the covert cousin of codified linguistic discrimination.

Nonstandard English grammar can stem from a host of factors: people with learning difficulties and disabilities, people who speak English as a second language or grew up in a household where pidgin languages were spoken, or people whose English dialect simply diverges from Standard English may all approach written and spoken English differently.

Moreover, class differences in public school districts further contribute to disparities in written and spoken English. Public schools in wealthier communities can spend a higher amount of money per student.

These predominantly white, wealthy communities — comprised mostly of students who speak English as their first language — have greater resources for ensuring the academic success of their students within a system based on Standard English.

Most four-year institutions still use standardized test scores as a component of their admission process. Such tests rely heavily upon the test-taker’s comprehension of and proficiency in Standard English.

Moreover, most college professors take grammar and spelling into account when grading their students’ work. Admission to and success in many four-year institutions therefore seem difficult for students without strong Standard English.

People who are barred from higher education due to language barriers are also barred from high-salary jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that higher levels of education correlate with higher paying jobs.

Additionally, a 2013 study conducted by Grammarly found people whose LinkedIn profiles had fewer grammatical errors achieved higher positions and more promotions.

The importance of proficiency in Standard English extends outside of the United States as well. In an increasingly globalized society with increasing numbers of English-speakers, English solidifies as the language of the educated and, for many, serves as an indicator of status worldwide.

Evidently, proficiency in Standard English serves as cultural capital in academia and in the workplace in the United States and in the world. But, the language of success in the United States, and now the world, has a history of cultural genocide. As English thrives, countless other languages and dialects hover on the verge of extinction.

Ultimately, the dialogue surrounding grammar must be shifted from fixing and correcting students’ speech to providing Standard English as somewhat of a second language. Thus, success in the current system and cultural vitality need not be mutually exclusive.

Standard English exists as a privilege to those who speak it and a roadblock to those who do not. While ‘proper’ grammar facilitates understanding for some, acceptance of only one form as ‘proper’ silences countless voices.

Yes, this article has been heavily edited to abide by the rules of Standard English. But, by considering the history and implications of Standard English, perhaps the current system of silencing may itself be edited, too.

Lily Borak PZ ’21 is a neuroscience major from Newton, Massachusetts. She loves telling everyone Boston sports teams are the best despite never really watching Boston sports.

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