Proper English: Us Versus Them

A writer friend of mine posted a little meme* on Facebook the other day:

Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading.

I doubt there’s any data to support this but I feel the truth of it in my bones, having been a child who read so much her parents both delighted in and worried about it. Having been a child who publicly mispronounced words—like HOR-i-zon instead of hor-EYE-zon, and PEN-ih-lope rather than pen-ELL-oh-pee—that she’d read in books.

There was no judgment (or ridicule) in the correction. “You’ve got the accent on the wrong sih-LAH-bul,” my dad would say. It was a common phrase in our house. Most kids like to learn, and my parents were definitely my first teachers. They were wordy, playful people (I’ve mentioned this before), the kind of folks who knew how to play with hyperbole—and knew how to use it in a sentence too. From them I learned how to be silly as well as to delight in the use of language.

Still, I was taught what was proper (proper according to my mother, anyway). We kids were never even allowed to say yeah. It was yes or nothing. No problem: back then—as I was reading my mom’s novels—there weren’t a lot of writers using yeah anyway; Mom’s teaching was reinforced in my reading. A lot of what and who I am has to do with what and how much I read as a kid.

So why in the world would we make fun of a reader? (More to the point, why would we ridicule anyone?) I’m feeling the truth of mispronunciation-arising-from-reading, but I just don’t get why we are judging anyone about it. Said the editor.

Late last year I (finally) finished reading The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings, a fascinating book I recommend if you’re interested in this sort of thing. The overarching question, of course, being What is “proper” English?

Who decides what proper English is, is decided by those who are literate—that is, readers—and that’s where we get into it. (For my purposes, I’m going to use “English” in the broadest possible sense, by which I mean speaking and writing the language—syntax and grammar, yes, but spelling and pronunciation too.)

Seems we have the Victorians to thank for our hair-trigger judginess about language use. Hitchings notes the central problem of Victorian English was class. Whereas in previous generations social class was easy to establish (it divided pretty neatly along literacy lines, which was determined, of course, by money), “thanks to better and cheaper printing techniques, a drop in the cost of paper and the abolition in 1861 of the tax on paper, there was more to read—magazines, newspapers and cheap books.” Literacy was on the rise. More readers. Readers whose names couldn’t be found on Burke’s Peerage.

Now, to the Victorians’ consternation,

Throughout the nineteenth century the things one talked about and the ways one talked about them were symbols of status; … linguistic and moral propriety became a fact of education. … Class shifted from being something that was having a basis in fact to being a matter of public debate.

In other words, how one spoke and used the language—if one was speaking and using it properly—was an identifier of class. If you’ve seen the movie My Fair Lady—or George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, from which the movie is derived—you’ll get it: “Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech” (from Wikipedia, emphasis mine).

We’re still judging today. (See Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves for an example of the worst sort.) Marketing expert Seth Godin sees a misspelling at a Staples store (stationary when it should be stationery**) and writes a blog post about it: “I have trouble buying paper and pens at a store that cares so little about competence that they’ve misspelled the very thing they sell on their sign.” (Staples should have hired a well-read editor to look over their signage before they put it in a thousand-plus stores, but that’s another story.)

So how about that misspelling? Can we blame that on reading or not reading? And bad grammar? Word misuse, like the refugee who said “white shirt man” when he meant white-collar worker? For that matter—accent? Southerners (and I am one) often find our accent conflated with our intellect by some folks (see: Tom Petty). Those judge-y Victorians placed a lot of importance on accent. But the smaller our world gets, the more accents we hear—speakers (like the refugee) whose first language isn’t English. Shall we judge the propriety of this speech?

I don’t think we should rush into that judgment.

Editing the words of other is an interesting occupation. One is called to be a pedagogue, and yet one finds oneself striving to become kinder, gentler. It’s my job to correct. It’s even my job to judge quality. But—as I have said here more than once—an editor does not judge writers, much less her friends and clients and coworkers, on their personal correspondence, social media posts, or comments made over lunch. Life is too short. We could be reading more books instead. :)

* Yes, it uses the singular they, which bugs me, but this post isn’t about that. Stand down. And no, this isn’t truly a meme.)
** In my day we called them stationery stores, so this was not a problem; now they’re called office supply stores. When and why did that happen?

Note: here are some related posts:
Are You a Prescriptivist or a Descriptivist?
Your Fifth-Grade Teacher Versus Me
The Manuscript, the Editor, The Thief, and Her Grammar Nazi
True Confessions of a Reformed Pedant
Reading Matters
When the Pupil Is Ready, the Teacher Will Come
I Am Not Editing Our Conversation


Tweet: What else can we blame on reading or not reading? Misspelling? Bad grammar?
Tweet: To judge or not to judge … proper English.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Amy Parker says:

    Ha, I just sent out graduation celebration invites with a split infinitive (“to immediately follow”)! Of course, upon realizing it, I could have torn open all of the envelopes and replaced the cards, but I’m guessing I won’t lose any guests over it. (And if I do, well, the party will likely be better for it. ;)

  2. April says:

    This post rawks!! <3