by Carmina Masoliver

“You can’t even use apostrophes.” I may not have always said it, but I’m certainly guilty of thinking it and similar things to do with punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Whether directed at someone during an online debate, or used to make yourself superior because someone else has bigoted views or an unfavourable political standpoint. Even in cases where someone is verbally attacking you and making personal comments, you’re not the better person for commenting on their intellect or education.

When I had these thoughts or made comments about someone’s inability to do something, it was usually to make myself feel better. It’s a smug kind of self-righteousness that probably comes from fear or insecurity, or even an inability to articulate what you really think or feel. Often when we use these put-downs, and even when we use words like ‘stupid’, we don’t think about what it really means.

you’re not the better person for commenting on their intellect or education

Once, with some colleagues, I was looking at the IQ categories and different words that had been used to describe those with lower intelligence scores, such as ‘moron’. Words such as this, as well as ‘idiot’ and the like, are examples of how casually we use these words in conversations both on and offline. Similarly, people are described as ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ in connection to things people find extreme, often in a negative context. These are all examples of ableist language. Furthermore, comments on spelling target those with dyslexia as the punchline of the mockery.

When we talk about intellect, we’re also getting tied up in education. To be able to use punctuation and grammar in the way predominantly seen as correct is a privilege. At times, I’ve even been ashamed to admit that I hadn’t always known things like not needing an apostrophe for dates like ‘1990s’. Even when I was at university, I was making errors I now would be shocked to see I’d done. I don’t blame schooling as I’m sure I had people correcting me, just as I have done in my job as an English Mentor. But it was through this job that I actually learnt these rules – all of it comes down to both privilege and luck. On one hand, I had a good university degree, but on the other, I accepted the job because I would have otherwise been unemployed for an unknown period of time. For that I considered myself lucky – I was able to leave my job at Sainsbury’s to a job that requires a degree. I had gone to university not knowing what parentheses were (brackets, for anyone reading this in the same boat) and nearly crying because I forgot to double-space an essay I’d handed in. But I left with a Masters. So, although class can be a complex issue, I don’t deny the ways I’ve been privileged when it comes to knowing about SPG (spelling, punctuation, grammar… though slightly less of the first); even something taken for granted such as having lots of books in the house, and being encouraged to read, is a massive privilege.

( © William Haefeli/The New Yorker )

It has also been argued that there is a racial element to these kinds of insults. Partly, this might be due to its intersectionality with class. In cases of both class and race, there is also an elitism created when the dominant group states what is ‘correct’. It may make sense to have a kind of ‘Standard English’, but to mock others for not adhering to it erases the fact that the English language is far more complex than that. I recently read “The Lexical Approach” by Michael Lewis and I loved it; it tapped into this idea that even language is on a spectrum, rather than something being correct or incorrect. It is base on how well you manage to communicate, and describes language as an “organism… constantly in the act or change or growth.” The book also has a great bit on gendered pronouns within literature. An example that I have often heard about in relation to the classist and racist assumptions when criticising someone’s SPG is AAVE – African-American Vernacular English – but there are obviously lots of other dialects spoken across the world that are just as legitimate as “Standard English”.

If it wasn’t for the rise of autocorrect, a lot more people would be using text-speech on Facebook, where a lot of these online debates occur, and I – for one – would be making a lot more spelling errors. It’s an interesting subject, and one that reminded me of the banning of slang or even starting sentences with ‘basically’ (which I do a lot) at a school recently. The subject also reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s philosophy on language – that each individual is the master of their own language. Here’s a quote (apparently not an acceptable form of ‘quotation’, and so, I rebel) from Alice in Wonderland:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.”

It is hard not to digress when discussing the matter of language, but it brings me back to the point that it is not a simple thing. As I write, I have left my Mentor job after nearly four years and I’m teaching English as a foreign language in Vietnam. This in itself can be difficult to think about in terms of the cultural imperialism that Michael Lewis addresses in his book. And it brings me onto my final point: when you mock people for their intellect or education, ridiculing their spelling or whatever it is, it may be that you’re also mocking those for whom English is not a first language (I still don’t know when you use ‘whom’ but it sounded right). So, again, I ask, can we stop doing this?

It’s not a question of censorship, but rather consideration. It’s easy to react defensively when you are asked to reflect on your use of language, but I’m trying to listen more,and to think about the multiple oppressions this kind of mockery and judgement contains, as well as other areas of intersections when approaching things as a feminist. After all, when it comes to things like access to education, women within the global picture are falling short, and in extreme cases are risking their lives for the sake of learning. So, we just need to remember to keep learning, and to be open-minded when a group of people is asking you to reconsider using certain terms. And when you judge someone’s SPG, think about what you’re really trying to express and what you’re saying instead.

Featured image © XKCD

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