OPINION: Grammar upholds an oppressive system

A homeless man holds up a sign asking for education, income, and the government's help, while a well-dressed woman passes him by, stopping to correct the grammar on his sign.
(Emma Tao • The Student Life)

Watching friends go on Tinder “adventures” is very entertaining. Most of them don’t even involve leaving the couch — they mostly consist of tales of ridiculous people who had the gall to believe they had a chance.

I’ve noticed that a common reason for rejection, right out of the gate, is bad grammar. When someone starts a conversation with “how was you’re day,” they’re bound to get unmatched and laughed at behind their backs.

But because most people who use “bad grammar” do so because they don’t have a choice, judging them based on grammar upholds systems of oppression such as classism, racism, xenophobia and ableism.

Most people who use bad grammar do so because they didn’t have the privilege of an education that stressed “good grammar.” Very few people, if any, use “bad grammar” on purpose. 

To assume that someone is dumb or unworthy based on an assessment of their grammar is to assume that because someone did not have access to a certain type of education, they are stupid. Someone with bad grammar is potentially just as smart, if not smarter, than someone who uses good grammar. 

The effects of judgments on the basis of grammar go far beyond the baseless rejections of potentially great Tinder dates. In job interviews, people are turned away for bad grammar. Because of this, people who did not have access to education — usually those from poorer backgrounds — are kept poor because they can’t land high-paying jobs that require good grammar. 

In reality, unless it’s in the communication sector, most jobs don’t require good grammar. You can be an excellent quantitative analyst without “good grammar,” for example. 

Perfectly qualified college applicants are also rejected because of bad grammar. This is yet another way of keeping poorer people from receiving the education necessary for social mobility, thus perpetuating a classist system. 

Besides, the idea that “good grammar” should be expected of everyone relies on a standardized kind of English that does not include language varieties such as African American Vernacular English, for example. 

The idea that AAVE is not “correct” upholds a racist system and shows a deep lack of understanding. Scholars are divided on the origins of AAVE, but the general consensus is that it originated from a mixture of West African languages brought over by enslaved people and the English of slaveholders, born out of a need to communicate.

West African languages often lack “th” sounds and final consonant clusters, which AAVE often reflects. Some linguists draw parallels between AAVE and Caribbean Creole English varieties. For example, both frequently drop “is” and “are,” and both permit dropping word-initial d, b and g in tense-aspect markers. 

The school board in Oakland, California explicitly calls AAVE a distinct language from Standard American English, and recognizes it as the native language of around 30,000 African American students within the school district. 

Just like how you shouldn’t think that someone is stupid because they speak primarily in French, you shouldn’t think someone is stupid because they speak primarily in AAVE. 

“Good grammar” is also a means of perpetuating xenophobia. Those who learned English as an additional language sometimes struggle with grammar. English is hard, and treating those who don’t get it exactly right differently because they hail from different cultures with different languages is another way of oppressing those people. 

It’s also worth noting that some people are unable to speak with “proper grammar” because they have various disabilities. Dyslexia and dysgraphia can make it hard to write with “good grammar” and spelling. Autism, cerebral palsy, certain brain injuries, stuttering and Tourette syndrome are all examples of circumstances in which speaking or writing with “good grammar” can be incredibly difficult. For the visually impaired, it’s very hard to pick up on typos in writing. To dismiss these people because their grammar and spelling isn’t perfect is a form of ableism.  

I have my own biases against grammatically challenged people. When I catch myself being prejudiced, I try to stop, take a step back and reconsider my assumptions. It’s in everyone’s best interests to do this. 

If we don’t, we miss out on brilliant workers, friends and lovers. And worse, we uphold a classist, racist, xenophobic and ableist system of oppression. 

Margot Rosenblatt SC ’23 is from New York, New York. She’s trying to stop being such a stickler about grammar, but sometimes can’t help showing off her understanding of the “who-whom” rule. You can pry the Oxford comma from her cold, dead, and lifeless hands (and the copy editors do).

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