The Grammar Police and the Corrections Officer

An alert on Facebook by John Gintell on 2/15, to this Reality Check cartoon by Dave Whamond from 10/14/16:

But wait! Just what is being policed and corrected here?

From my 6/9/12 posting “The Grammar Police”:

Grammar Police is an instance of the X police snowclonelet (which I haven’t posted on before), and a very popular one at that. But if you look at some of the enormous number of sites using the expression, you’ll see that most of them aren’t about what linguists think of as grammar, but about what I’ve called garmmra (largely spelling and punctuation).

So it is, alas, with the Whamond cartoon.

The core of what linguists think of as the grammar of a language is the very complex system of sentence structure in the language, its syntax. Not ony complex — consider the huge Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (which aims to give an account of the grammar of “general-purpose, present-day, international Standard English” and is focused primarily on syntax) — but almost entirely below the level of consciousness.

This complex and largely tacit system becomes a matter of explicit discussion  when it collides with competing, different, equally complex and largely tacit systems, in particular various non-standard and regional varieties. In certain contexts and for certain purposes, non-standard (e.g., I didn’t see nobody) and regional (e.g., My car needs washed) usages are devalued socially and even viewed as mere errors (like slips of the tongue or pen), with the result that the teaching of “grammar” in the schools becomes largely a matter of identifying such usages explicitly, so that they can be rooted out and “corrected” to roughly equivalent standard, cross-regional usages (I saw no one, I didn’t see anybody; My car needs washing, My car needs to be washed).

So instead of exposing the fascinating intricacies of English grammar — as in, say, Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar (Cambridge, 2005) — school instruction in grammar tends to be a matter of rooting out (the Grammar Police) and then “fixing” (the Corrections Officer) non-standard or regional usages.

From there, it’s a short step to seeing any sort of deviation from conventions of language use — including spelling errors and deviations in mechanical matters like capitalization and punctuation — as in the same bag as non-standard and regional usages, so as “mistakes in grammar”. Then, since deviations in spelling and mechanical matters are especially easy to find and fix, these become the focus of instruction and remediation in “grammar”.  Sigh.

3 Responses to “The Grammar Police and the Corrections Officer”

  1. Mitch4 Says:

    Some clickbait I stumbled into this morning led to a site called GossipCop. That might sound like a group aiming to police the exploitative gossip sites by exercising some fact-checking, but my initial view didn’t find anything like that. It seemed to be simply more of the exploitative gossip stuff. I didn’t explore far enough to find an About or mission statement which might explain the Cop in the name.

  2. Mitch4 Says:

    Self-reply: Well they do have an “About Us” and it claims just what the name implies and I thought I was not seeing:

    “Gossip Cop was created to fact-check the gossip industry. Launched in July 2009, the site strives to be the most accurate and credible source of celebrity news. Every day our team diligently works to separate fact from fiction and we are proud to be at the forefront of debunking “fake news” about Hollywood personalities.”

    You never know.

  3. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    This reminds me of the wonderful little book Arnold wrote some years ago, Mistakes. I see there’s a photocopy he has posted online https://web.stanford.edu/~zwicky/mistakes.pdf. Highly recommended.

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