I’m silently labeling you an asshole

Accidentally encountered on the net yesterday: this t-shirt triumph of supercilious peeving:


It’s also available on signs, mugs, plaques, and goodness knows what else. Dare I hope for underwear?

It comes in both contracted and uncontracted variants:


One company that makes these things says they’re “funny” and “nerdy sarcastic” and another advertises them for the “pitiless red-pencilpacking grammar police”.  So the shirts are supposed to be mocking peeverdom — by flaunting peevishness. But there’s often a fine line between retailing an attitude to mock it and propagating it.

If people read the slogan as valorizing peeving — even celebrating it as individual action advancing a social good (“I’m only only saying this to make you a better person”) — then the devisers of the slogan deserve whatever contempt I can heap on them. I considered recommending that they be consigned to a fiery hell, or at least roasted on spits, but then I decided that I’m a better person than that, so I’ll just call them out as supercilious assholes. It’s only fair.

There is a way to interpret the slogan as an accurate claim, though it’s surely not what its devisers intended — namely as the observation that hearers almost always “silently correct” inadvertent errors in people’s speech, in the sense that, below the level of consciousness, hearers automatically convert what was said to what was probably intended. Most inadvertent speech errors go unnoticed, and therefore pass without comment. (Things are more complicated for written language, where inadvertent errors are more likely to be noticed.)

In fact, most people also “silently correct” differences in linguistic varieties, converting other people’s accents, lexical choices, morphological forms, syntactic constructions, and use  of speech qualities into the ones they themselves would use. This makes sense, because most people are trying to make sense of what they hear, not to act as censors, seeking out differences in order to wipe them out (that’s what pathological peevers do).

Nevertheless, though most people “silently correct” varietal differences, they do notice them (at various levels of consciousness) and use these differences to make judgments (at various levels of consciousness) about who speakers are and what they are like, classifying them roughly and approximately (and not necessarily accurately) by sex, age, race or ethnicity or nationality, geographical region, social class, educational level, sexual orientation, personality, and more. The processes of classification and interpretation here are quite complex; for one thing, the “objective” categories I’ve just used in describing the processes don’t necessarily correspond to the folk categories people themselves tacitly use, and for another, the folk categories are interrelated in complex ways. But it’s not in doubt that classification and interpretation take place — but they’re not the same thing as pathological peeving.



2 Responses to “I’m silently labeling you an asshole”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Dennis Preston on Facebook:

    I am silently analyzing your grammar (that’s why I didn’t understand what you said)

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Nicoleta Harabagiu Bateman on Facebook:

    A student gave me a mug with this on it once. I only hope that by the end of the semester she wished she could take it back.

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