Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language

Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language by Jila Ghomeshi is a pocket-size book of 101 pages that is full of information. By no means a primer for armchair linguists, Ghomeshi states her case in the introduction that she “will not shy away from using more technical terms and concepts”. Thus Grammar Matters is most definitely not a Very Short Introduction. The main argument is best summed up by the blurb on the back cover. I could not find a way to express it better myself:

“It is hard to find someone who doesn’t have a pet peeve about language. The act of bemoaning the decline of language has become something of a cottage industry. High profile, self-appointed language police worry that new forms of popular media are contributing to sloppiness, imprecision, and a general disregard for the rules of grammar and speech. Within linguistics the term “prescriptivism” is used to refer to the judgements that people make about language based on the idea that some forms and uses of language are correct and others incorrect. This book argues that prescriptivism is unfounded at its very core, and explores why it is, nevertheless, such a popular position. In doing so it addresses the politics of language: what prescriptivist positions about language use reveal about power, authority, and various social prejudices.”

Ghomeshi argues that there is nothing inherently wrong about using “non-standard” English and that all arguments about the superiority of standard English are baseless. For example, whether or not one pronounces the /ŋ/ as the final sound in present participles (such as walkin’, talkin’, refudiatin’) does not an ignorant uneducated speaker make. There is no extra effort for the speaker to utter the final sound as /ŋ/ or /n/, so laziness is not a valid argument for those who clip their /ŋ/’s. 

The chapter entitled “Why does non-standard grammar persist?” was the most interesting, wherein Ghomeshi analyzes why educated people deliberately write and speak in non-standard forms. From “Krispy Kreme” doughnuts to lolcat speak (“I are crying cuz I are out of focuss”) we see the underlying reasons businesses and everyday people write and speak in a variety of idioms of English depending on their situation. University professors such as Ghomeshi or Condoleezza Rice might shift into an intimate vernacular when talking among family members. Having a PhD does not mean that one has abandoned the language of one’s intimates. Ghomeshi writes: 

“To take ain’t as an example, if the people in my circle of friends, family, and acquaintances use ain’t, I will too. To not use it may appear to be some sort of judgment on the language of those I love. By using ain’t, however, I am not choosing to be considered an uneducated rural hick although I very well might be.” 

Note how Ghomeshi uses two different spellings of “judgement”/”judgment” in the quote above and in the introductory blurb at the beginning of this review. While both are correct spellings, she should be consistent with one spelling throughout her work.

In spite of the book’s brevity I feel that Ghomeshi overdid it in when discussing her prescriptivism-versus-descriptivism argument. By the end of page 101 I was tired of hearing her argue against prescriptivism. I fully admit to being a grammar snob, one of those “language police” she writes about so derisively. In my opinion linguistic phenomena such as dropping one’s /ŋ/’s is a symptom of being uneducated, or at least of speaking a non-standard form of proper English. I believe that it should be possible to look into the historical evolution of this trait and see where and when one first encountered this style of pronunciation. I do not believe that the dropping of the final /ŋ/ occurred in colonial American cities, urban centres where one found businesses and universities, but rather in homesteads and plantations where literacy or even schoolhouses were few and far between. Either that or I grew up watching too much “Hee Haw”. 

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