Monday, June 2, 2014

Good, Better, Best

Towards Shavuot
4 Sivan, 5774
June 2nd, 2014

Grammar snob noun \ˈgra-mər ˈsnäb\ : self-appointed tyrant and arbiter of the proper usage of language. Though the grammar snob often resides within social groups, the snob may, after a particularly difficult text message session, abandon the group in exasperation to be alone with his/her/zer's New Yorker, MLA Handbook, and occasionally a Strunk and White's.

The grammar snob's seemingly hair-trigger outbursts and depth of feeling concerning the use of "thru" and "lite" are often a mystery to companions and friends. But to the snob, such reactions are a perfectly reasonable - nay, moderate - response to the misuse of the snob's beloved language, whose purity and precision should be defended at all costs.

The question before us is whether or not the grammar snob is a force for good, albeit in a rather grating manner, in the community.

A friend shared this piece which argues that the grammar snob's influence is more pernicious than helpful. In it, Melissa Fabello points out that the grammar for which snobs would gladly make the ultimate sacrifice was canonized by a bunch of white, wealthy, highly educated men circa 1930. Which is to say that what we call proper grammar is in fact the dialect belonging to the most privileged Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

I want so much to like her piece. Her main point is a good one. Those of us with ethnically Ashkenazi forebears who made it to this country will recognize that the English in which I now write was not the dialect of our grandparents ("You vant I should call you? I'll be staying by Murray - you know, mit the shmatte (clothing) business. Don't forget to wear a nice sweater.") There's African American Vernacular English (AAVE), in which most of white America regularly, and sneakily, indulges. There are even dialects based on profession: management-speak, corporate-speak, medical-speak, airline-speak etc.

So when we hold up one dialect as proper English, we're reinforcing the hegemony of the people to whom that dialect belongs - at the cost of other dialects that are full of their own life and should be treasured. To paraphrase from her piece, when it's called the Queen's English, we all know who's best. The implications go far beyond semicolons.

The problem is the extreme to which this argument goes, for she drops this sentence like a bomb, "any time we create a hierarchy by positioning one thing as “better” than another, we’re being oppressive.”

I have seen this reduction ad absurdum used before, and I protest. The hierarchy of “best” can oppress, but it is equally true that ideas of “the good” and “better” serve to uproot both injustice and pursue aesthetic beauty. All is not relative. Language that promotes freedom is better than language that oppresses; language that argues against the objectification of women is better than misogyny; language that is creative and meaningful, deft and expressive, and well-employed through its own rules of usage is simply good. The judgment of these categories is not merely subjective, but the proper use of the human heart and intellect; their accomplishment, the work of our hands.

When we talk about language and expression through writing, one of the things we need to address is how to get better at them. Such a discussion will incorporate the words, “usage,” and “better,” and “mistake,” and “good.” To write judgment out of language subverts the very goal it is trying to achieve. Without judging, we cannot determine what is just.

Deuteronomy 6:18, “You shall do the right and the good.” Our understanding of the multiplicity of what is good has blossomed, but our pursuit of the good remains constant.


  1. Sweet! The Hebrew "yashar" connotes direction (straight) and may indicate that good needs to be the direction that we travel -

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