Those who like grammar, like it a lot. For the rest of us, it can be a bit of a nuisance. But, we do our best to follow the rules because bad grammar is a bad look. Whether we’re looking for love, a job or an apartment, improper grammar can take us out of the running.
But according to our experts these preconceived notions around grammatical rules are off track. Dr. Anne Curzan says good grammar has been a moving target for centuries while Dr. Andreea Calude says we’re very adept at tempering our language to suit the situation, which is a good thing.
Join host Lottie Bazley on this episode of Infernal Communication as we learn how to tame our inner grammando and reveal the real rules of good grammar.
Anne Curzan: I think there is this myth out there that there was a time when everybody agreed about how an apostrophe should be used. And I'm here to say, there has never been that moment in the history of English.
Lottie Bazley: Ah, grammar. Those of us who like it, like it a lot. But there are many of us who have a hard time caring about verb tenses, punctuation, word choice, properly pluralizing words like alumnus, cacti, rhinoceroses and sheep. Sheeps? Sheep? I don't know. It's a lot to keep track of even if English is your first language, and for many it's not. But we live in a world where grammar matters. Using it without the necessary apostrophe can cost us a better job, an apartment, maybe even a date. So we need to adapt to best suit what we're doing. There's texting, social media, internal memos, emails to our friends and emails to our boss. We switch up our grammar and word choice for each one. But, who made the rules? Where do they come from and whose job is it to enforce them? Because whilst it's easy to get very precious about proper grammar, we might be making it up as we go a little more than we would care to admit.
You're listening to Infernal Communication brought to you by Staffbase, and I'm your host, Lottie Bazley. Today's episode is all about grammar. How it's used in communicating and how it can also be used as a bit of a gatekeeping tool.
Clip: Lock the gate.
Lottie Bazley: You know how they say in order to break the rules, you have to know them? Well, Anne Curzan knows the rules.
Anne Curzan: I have the great fortune of hosting the podcast, That's What They Say, on our local NPR affiliate Michigan Radio. So for five minutes every Sunday morning, my co-host Rebecca Kruth and I share random linguistic information to start your Sunday.
Lottie Bazley: Anne is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English, Linguistics and Education at the University of Michigan. She's also the dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Anne entered university as a math major. But as with so many of the paths we choose for ourselves at a young age, it changed.
Anne Curzan: So in my sophomore year I took a course called the History of the English Language and I fell in love. I didn't know that these were the questions that I wanted to know the answers to and suddenly it opened up this world and I have devoted myself to studying the history of English ever since.
Lottie Bazley: So what were some of the questions Anne yearned to have answered?
Anne Curzan: How grammar had changed over time, learning things like double and multiple negation used to be standard in English and then really wanting to understand why did that change and why do people have such strong feelings about, for example, double or multiple negation now and see it as wrong. And then I was really interested in the history of gender in English. English used to have grammatical gender like German and French and Spanish, and it lost that. And I actually wrote my dissertation on where it went.
Lottie Bazley: So when it comes to English grammar, we have obviously got the right person. Anne is an expert on how language has changed over time. For example, double negation, the Rolling Stone song, I can't get no satisfaction. (singing)
I can't get no, two negatives. Something we would normally call bad grammar, but Anne says it's not quite that simple.
Anne Curzan: Now, for the people who try to argue that those two negatives cancel each other out, they are trying to argue that I can't get no satisfaction means I can get satisfaction. This is clearly not true. Those two negatives pile on top of each other. Sometimes people will say to me, "But in math two negatives, cancel each other out." All right. I started college as a math major. This is also not very hard math. It is true that if you multiply two negatives in math they cancel each other out, make a positive. But in math, if you add two negatives, you get a bigger negative. Old English, Middle English, into the Renaissance uses double, triple negation. So this is a rule governed system, and English used to be a language that did multiple negation and many varieties of English still use multiple negation in the US and around the world, but the standardized variety uses single negation. That doesn't make it right, it just makes it the standardized version.
Lottie Bazley: From the Rolling Stones to the Renaissance, double negation isn't new and isn't necessarily bad. I'd definitely get some looks if I use it in a company memo.
Employee 42118: S'up, boss man? I talked to John in HR, but I can't get no time off or time to hang with my doggo. Can't I get you to yeah-ify? Because I'd like to vacation.
Boss: Hello employee 42118, you are fired.
Lottie Bazley: Getting creative with grammar comes off as a mistake. So here's the question, knowing that the rules are changing with the times as communications geeks, how do we know when to be a stickler and when to just go with the flow?
Anne Curzan: I am very accepting of language change. It's what I study. It keeps me in business that the language is changing all the time. And yet there are moments when I realize that a change is happening in the language and I think, oh, does it really have to change that way? And an example is the adjective impactful, which I have never liked, but I have no good grounds for that. It's a perfectly good adjective. The fact that Anne Curzan does not like the adjective impactful is irrelevant to the history of the English language. I do not correct this in other people's language. Wonderfully, the other day I was talking to someone at work and I said, "I think this change is going to be very..." And I realized I was headed straight toward impactful and I swerved at the last minute and I said, " Very significant." But clearly I'm about to start using impactful like so many other speakers.
Lottie Bazley: Let's say Anne wasn't as accepting. She knows what the rules were and she knows what the rules of standardized English currently are, so she could wield them like a weapon shooting down mistakes at every turn.
Clip: The Comma Squad's in place. The Oxford comma has landed.
Lottie Bazley: She doesn't, but there is a special term for those who do.
Anne Curzan: One of my favorite terms when we talk about grammar gatekeeping is grammando. This is a term that was introduced by Lizzie Skurnick in the New York Times magazine in 2012 in the little short column called, This Should be a Word. And a ‘Grammando’ is someone who corrects other people's language, other people's grammar. And I have also coined the expression ‘to go grammando on someone’, which is that moment when you correct someone else.
Now I do find it helpful and I think it's important to recognize that I think all of us have an ‘Inner Grammando’ in our head, including me. As an English professor myself, I do see it as one of my responsibilities to make sure that students control the standardized written, formal, edited version of the language. Now you'll notice I just piled a whole lot of adjectives on there and that's how I talk with students about it. That is a variety that many of them will need and want to control for particular kinds of professional opportunities in the world, and I want to make sure they have access to that.
Lottie Bazley: Because we all know that people in power can judge a mistake, can lose people opportunities, but there's more at stake here.
Anne Curzan: What I worry about is that people often will use a typo or something like that in a covered letter to judge someone's intelligence. That is not fair. We see this on dating websites where people will say, "Oh, if you don't know Y-O-U-R from Y-O-U apostrophe R-E, then I'm not going on a date with you." Or ‘it's’, with an apostrophe, versus ‘its’ without an apostrophe. Let's all be honest about this. All of us have screwed up it's and its, it's confusing. I would like to say just while we're on the apostrophe, I think there is this myth out there that there was a time when everybody agreed about how an apostrophe should be used, and I'm here to say there has never been that moment in the history of English. The apostrophe has always been on the move. There has never been full agreement about exactly how the apostrophe should be used.
Lottie Bazley: Let's bring Andreea Calude into the conversation. She is also a linguist who funnily enough also started out in math. I'm wondering, do all linguists start out as math majors? I guess that's a matter for another episode.
Andreea Calude: I'm based at the University of Waikato in Aotearoa/New Zealand. My name in full is Andreea Simona Calude and I use she and her. I'm Romanian by birth. In Romanian my name is Andreea, but most people just call me Andreea because the R and the stress are different in English.
Lottie Bazley: She says, between grammar, accents and word choice, we can come to conclusions quite quickly about each other in just a few words.
Andreea Calude: This happens to me all the time. As soon as I open my mouth people kind of try and place my accent or place where I'm from and they try to figure out maybe how old I am based on the kind of words I use. And so we do this instinctively and it's kind of to some extent evolutionary. We want to know who is from our local community, who we can trust and who we can't. But then sometimes it gets to be more extreme and we make a lot of inferences and assumptions based on language information that don't hold. We often equate, for example, intelligence with a way that someone maybe speaks a language. And I think many non-native speakers have been in situations where people assume they're dumb because they can't express themselves quickly enough in the new language, and it's really frustrating. So we constantly use language as a yardstick to measure others in various ways.
Lottie Bazley: And sometimes that can help us connect.
Andreea Calude: For example, if I'm out at a conference somewhere and I meet someone who clearly has what seems to me like a New Zealand accent, I might immediately go up to them and say, "Where are you from? Are you from New Zealand?" Try and see if we are kind of from a similar part or whatever. So it's not all terrible things, but sometimes bad things do happen.
For example, there's some studies shown that when people interact, say, on the phone or without being able to see each other and they interact with people for the first time, the reactions that different speakers have vary, for example, with someone's ethnicity. So for example, some studies that have been done in the US where when someone rings up a potential agency wanting to rent a flat, if they sound like they're African-American suddenly all the flats get taken very quickly and they're no longer available. This is an extreme case of racism essentially.
There's a lot of examples where non-native speakers are judged to be less friendly, less intelligent, less able to do their job or communicate because of their communication style. They're sometimes judged to fit in less because of the way they speak.
Lottie Bazley: Needless to say, our grammar holds a lot of weight and so do the things we assume about how others use it. But one gram choice that was thoughtful for years is slowly gaining traction in standard English and according to Anne Curzan, it can't happen quickly enough. It's the singular they.
Anne Curzan: They is and can be singular and it has been for hundreds of years. This is an example, like a teacher should learn their students' names or someone who knows where they're going, should give us directions, someone who knows where they are going. We've got evidence for that back into the medieval period.
Now, what's fascinating to me as someone who has been arguing for the legitimacy of singular they for decades now, is that it's the non-binary they which is changing the rules and usage guides. That many newspapers and other gatekeeping operations have realized that to be respectful of the people they write about, it's important to use their pronouns. And you'll notice that I'm not using their preferred pronouns. It's not their preferred pronouns, it's their pronouns. I don't say my preferred pronoun, is she. My pronoun is she. So usage guides to respect the people they write about have allowed non-binary singular they, and as a result, gender-neutral singular they is coming in on its coattails. I would not have predicted that, but however singular they gets into formal writing is good by me.
And they don't understand why those of us who are older are having so much trouble with this. They're saying to me, "It's really not that hard." But when people say to me,"I don't feel like I should have to use non-binary they, it seems, 'Silly' to me", I really push back against that because I think this is part of respect and the analogy I make is with personal names. If someone says to you, "My given name is Andrew."
Clip: Hey Andrew.
Anne Curzan: ... " But I go by Mike."
Clip: I actually go by Mike.
Anne Curzan: ... And you say.
Clip: Well, I'm going to call you Andrew.
Anne Curzan: Or, " I'm going to call you Peter."
Clip: I'm just going to call you Peter because that's easier for me.
Anne Curzan: We know that that would be somewhere between weird and rude, and we need to realize that when we say, okay, you tell me your pronoun is X, but I'm going to do something else that is also not respectful.
Lottie Bazley: I guess the kids are all right and they're quick to learn, not just singular they. Not sure if you've noticed, but there's been a lot of talk lately about the growing use of social media amongst young people.
Andreea Calude: It sort of fascinated me that people are very concerned that a young generation's spending all this time on social media and they can't read and write anymore and their literacy is going down, but yet a lot of what they consume is through written format. It comes to you written down on a screen. It could be a small screen, but it's still written down. So what's really interesting about social media is that it's not one type of language. It's lots of genres and it really depends on the platform and who you're connected to on that platform. If your mother is there, your language is going to be very different, probably. If your boss is there, your language is going to be very different.
So if you go on LinkedIn for example, where people are often talking to other professionals, potential employers, there the language is very much closer, if you like, to kind of traditional stereotypical written language, the grammar is much more likely to be standard. But then if you go on a platform where people socialize quite informally, maybe Facebook or Snapchat or something like that, the language is closer to spoken language. And yes, it can be very slangy and very informal, full of memes and all the fun stuff as well. But young people who are on social media a lot are exposed to a lot of different genres that they learn to navigate.
Lottie Bazley: Like texting. Anne says she's learned some of these lessons the hard way.
Anne Curzan: I remember early on when they told me that the winky face was always flirty, and I thought, oh goodness, what have I been sending out there in the world? The use of the exclamation mark, which I think for many of us can feel almost overdone at this point in texting, but if the period is angry, the neutral way of saying something is with no punctuation. Which means you need the exclamation mark, one, maybe two, to show that any kind of enthusiasm about what you're saying.
We also have developed in texting a way to capture other tone facial expression. This is why you need things like LOL, JK, the smiley faces, because we're missing all of this context. Being able to see someone's face, be able to hear their tone. So to avoid miscommunication, we need to capture that in the written form. And as a result, you see something like LOL, which originally really did mean laughing out loud, which has weakened dramatically. As one student said to me, that is a chuckle at best.
Lottie Bazley:It sounds to me like we're all learning as we go, which is essentially making it up as we go. Let's keep an open mind and try not to be too hard on each other for that errant apostrophe or for trying out a new word. Here's a final thought from Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan: I think that when we ‘go grammando’ on other people, one of the things we do is exclude people and silence them and/ or keep them out of opportunities. One of the key messages that I will be delivering throughout my career is that linguistic diversity is part of diversity. So as we think about diversity and we think about inclusion, we need to think about all the many different ways that people speak. It is part of our cultural diversity and it's an important part of who we are. And so when we call some kinds of language wrong and some kinds of language right, we are saying to some people the language of your community, the language that is part of how you grew up is somehow wrong, and that is also simply untrue. It may not be the variety that was standardized, but it's not wrong.
And then the second message is that a living language is always changing. That is an exciting part of a language. It shows the creativity of speakers. So younger speakers are always going to be changing the language, and we as older speakers, and I include myself in the older speaker category, should be embracing and watching this language change. The younger speakers are going to win. So you can jump on the train and enjoy the ride or you can get run over by the train. And as just one example, I will say for those of us I am a by accident speaker. If I did something accidentally, I did it by accident. If you listen to younger speakers, many of them are now saying on accident, they did it on accident. The younger speakers will outlive the older speakers.
Lottie Bazley: So don't fight the change, work to understand it. We all have our stories to tell. Let's make sure we are telling them in our voice with words that speak truth to us. And if you feel you're an old grammando making a sudden surge for freedom, think about what you have to gain and what we all have to lose.
Today our guests were linguists Anne Curzan and Andreea Calude. I'm Lottie Bazley, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase with production support from JAR Audio. Join us next time where we talk about how to stop your CEO from saying stupid shit in public.
Renu Bakshi: You show the CEO examples of CEOs who said stupid shit and got in a lot of trouble, not just personally where they had to step down, but also the hit to the bottom line which really hurts the most.
Lottie Bazley: If you enjoy the show, tell your dentist, tell your optometrist and that guy that signs you in at the gym. You can also follow us on your favorite podcast app and leave a review. Let us know what you think. See you on the flip side.