During my first year as an English instructor, I went to a beautiful New York restaurant for dinner with the rest of the staff. Shortly after we sat down, the server brought us a basket of warm, fragrant bread. I took a slice, buttered it, and happily started eating – and horrified my boss, who explained that you’re supposed to tear off small pieces and eat them one at a time.
Good grief. No one ever told me there were rules about eating bread and butter.
I’ve told that story to countless English classes over the years. Students who had worked as restaurant servers had stories of their own to share about silverware, napkins, and other issues connecting with fine dining. One favorite topic was the procedure for ordering wine (just look at the cork – don’t sniff it).
Those discussions were always lively and fun, and they were an effective lead-in to my main topic: The question of snobbishness. Students readily agreed that table manners aren’t snobbery: They’re common sense. Most of us adapt our eating habits according to the situation, and we do same with English usage. I don’t tear bread into small pieces when I eat at home, and I don’t always use Standard English either. But both sets of skills are highly useful when I attend a conference or meet with an editor.
The question of snobbishness has been on my mind lately in connection with a provocative video denouncing grammar snobbery made by Mona Chalabi for The Guardian (a British newspaper company) last month.
Chalabi quickly destroys the most common argument for good usage – that it helps us understand one another. Nobody, she says, is confused if you say less items instead of the more correct fewer items.
More serious, according to Chalabi, is the damage wrought by grammar snobbery, which she says “is often used to silence those who have less of a voice in society….We should spend more time listening to what others have to say and less time focusing on the grammar that they say it with.”
Hear, hear! Too often English usage is taught as if Moses was carrying a copy of Fowler’s English Usage when he came down from Mount Sinai. We should always respond to – and respect – a writer’s ideas before we start correcting punctuation and sentence structure. Often there’s no need to butt in with corrections at all.
But I would argue that there are some points that Chalabi overlooked. In Derridean fashion, her own impeccable English undermines her point. The video’s title, for example, is a perfect example of parallel construction (a rhetorical principle that confuses many professional writers): “Patronizing, Pretentious, and Just Plain Wrong.” Would we be listening with the same respect if she used slang to make her argument?
She’s mistaken about one of her supporting points – that there used to be a rule against starting sentences with and and but. There’s no such rule and never has been. (I used to make bets with my students about this. Nobody ever claimed the $100 I offered to a student who could prove me wrong.)
I have another reason for arguing that English usage is relevant. Nonstandard usage conveys the message that you’ve never acquired the habits of looking and listening. I once knew an English professor who always substituted “antidote” for “anecdote.” And I just read a wonderful biography of Dolores Hart (the Hollywood star who became a nun) that distracted me on every page because all the periods and commas were positioned outside the quotation marks.
Somehow these two people (and I’ve known many others like them) have never noticed that they’re out of step with everyone else. (I can’t help wondering if they ever acquired table manners!)
There’s also the issue of pride. Professional people care about quality. My husband has been a garden writer for more than 20 years. He goes over his columns carefully before he submits them to the newspaper – and he always takes one additional step: Asking me to proofread them.
I don’t think he’s ever cracked a copy of Fowler’s English Usage, and he’s not much interested in abstruse topics like indefinite pronoun reference and gerundives. But he takes pride in his writing, and I respect him for that.
And there’s one more thing. Standard English sometimes serves as a kind of bonding tool. Educated people can instantly recognize one another, and that’s not always a bad thing. Let me give you a non-academic example.
Years ago a TV magazine ran an article about the Honeymooners TV show – long a favorite in my family. (My husband still carries in his wallet his membership card in a long-ago Honeymooners fan club.)
About halfway through the article, I started screaming – with joy, I should add – because the writer referred to Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton (central characters in the show) as Racoons.
Ralph and Ed were members of the Royal Order of the Racoons – always misspelled (whether deliberately or not) on the show.
Very likely the editor of the magazine wanted to fix the spelling, and the writer held firm. I can picture him arguing that real fans of the show (like me) would instantly recognize him as a brother.
And now I will raise the tail of my imaginary racoon hat (a Racoon lodge ritual) to salute all the other Honeymooners fans who are reading this. And then it will be time for some proofreading of my own – undoing all the automatic corrections of Racoon in today’s post. Ain’t language fun?