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Fuck the (grammar) police

30 Oct

Let me tell you about my finest hour as a grammar warrior. I was sixteen, and my girlfriend at the time and I had been irked for days about a sign that had gone up by a new housing development on our bus route to school. It was one of several extolling the virtues of moving there and how EASY it was, and it read, ‘No agents fee’s,’ and we were apoplectic. One sunny day after the journey home from school, we decided to take action, armed with a black marker pen and Tippex (more on which later). To our delight, it turned out that each letter was stuck on and could PEEL OFF, so we were able to neatly relocate the apostrophe after ‘agents,’ and ALL WAS RIGHT WITH THE WORLD, and I felt a surge of glee every time I rode the bus past it to and from school. I was right and I was invincible.

I was just as unbearable inside school, trailing around in my half-heartedly ragged school uniform with that same marker pen and Tippex pen ready in the front pocket of my backpack for the inevitable SPAG errors on posters. Ironically, I had declined the offer of becoming a prefect on the grounds that I didn’t feel comfortable policing other people’s behaviour; in fact, I did, but not regarding inconsequential things like what type of trousers you were wearing. It hadn’t struck me, yet, that spelling, punctuation, and grammar might not be Of The Utmost Importance.

I am still passionate about spelling and grammar: I love applying them with precision to my own writing; I love the logic and the order. I think a well-punctuated sentence has something beautiful about it, and I like to make sure my writing adheres to the often ridiculous and admittedly arbitrary rules of the (British-) English language. But I have been prompted recently to reconsider the way in which I express that passion – the way in which I have, previously, used it as a means to undercut and alienate others.

Until pretty much yesterday, I was the kind of person who would interrupt someone while they were talking to correct their use of phrases like ‘less things,’ or ‘different than,’ even though their use of these phrases didn’t impede my understanding of their meaning. I have realised that I don’t want to be this person any more: my belligerence has not been about clarification so much as pedantry and privilege.

Yesterday was my turning-point because of something Amanda Palmer tweeted. She was having a conversation with her followers about things that could be blocked on Twitter in the wake of accusations (/observations) of the block on Occupy Wall Street etc. tweets. She retweeted someone saying, ‘I’d add “block topics with poor grammar” but…that likely wouldn’t work,’ adding ‘try! it’s the internet, anything is possible,’ and followed it with ‘Block Topics With Poor Grammar: retweet if you care.’ I read this, and I felt extremely uncomfortable; I imagined a Twitter in which several users found themselves denied access and unable to communicate because their grasp on the finer points of “correct” self-expression was too loose, and it was then that I first realised the blatant ableism and classism of demands for perfect grammar from members of the general public (I have different expectations of advertisers, but that’s another story). I also first realised the extent to which a passion for high-quality SPAG is a privilege in itself, and indicative of yet more privileges.  I don’t want to live in and perpetuate a world in which people’s self-expression is attacked and limited because they put an apostrophe in the wrong place, or spelt something wrong. Twitter in particular is a space in which I do not want to see this attitude prevailing, because, in spite of the likelihood of most people using it being white and middle-class and not disabled, it represents a mode of expression that allows a greater degree of freedom and access than many other spaces. So, I have uttered my last ‘FEWER!’ – I hope so, anyway.

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