Joey Barton is a soccer player from England. He’s played for Manchester City (always overshadowed by its flashier cousin, Manchester United), then Newcastle United, and until very recently, the Queens Park Rangers. He got into a bit of trouble during this past season for allegedly attacking three other players. He was not given a place on the team for the upcoming season. The latest news is that he’s contracted with Marseille.
In the meantime, Mr.Barton has started a website, which includes a blog. It’s only been live for a few weeks, and he’s written on a number of subjects. A friend sent me a link to his latest post, which he thought I might find interesting.
He was right.
Mr.Barton wrote a blog post entitled, “Who’s in charge of grammar?“
It’s not something I would have expected from a footballer.
“I get some flack about grammar and misspellings, sometimes deserved, often not. I do welcome it in a funny way, I learn more and I’m cool with that. Sometimes I do mess about, misspell on purpose, it’s perverse I know – goading people who are looking at what I type for all the wrong reasons. I can’t resist!”
After reading this opening paragraph, I wondered about the direction he was planning for the rest of the post. The comma splices didn’t really bode well, and I was perhaps a bit defensive about the idea that it’s fun to mock people who take grammar seriously. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what his take on the subject would be and I continued to read with an open mind.
He complains of the “Grammar Nazis”, claiming there are two types: sticklers and trolls. The sticklers, he says, are “people who just cannot stand any slip-up – even in a channel like Twitter, they’re probably a bit OCD in some way, it pains them.”
He’s partly right about the sticklers. It is true that we love to peeve, and some can’t keep those peeves to themselves. Indeed, it does pain us to see language misused and mishandled (like more comma splices.) It doesn’t mean we have a psychological disorder, however. It instead means that precision in language is more important to us than it is to him.
The trolls, on the other hand, are just trying to find anything about him they can easily criticize. For some, it’s probably easier to pick on his grammatical errors rather than his mistakes on the soccer pitch. As a public figure, he probably deals with this on a regular basis (and he’s not the only one), so I can’t blame him for wanting to call them out for their behavior.
The question Mr.Barton ultimately asks is, “When I get stick for grammar I regularly think to myself, who sets and maintains the rules for grammar – who is it that’s in charge? Who am I upsetting exactly?”
Mr.Barton deserves credit for a thoughtful question. Who is the arbiter of language? Is it academia? Publishing? Style manuals or dictionaries? If so, which one? Or is it us – the people, the users, the communities? At what point is something considered “wrong” and how do we know?
He eventually answers his own question: “[M]y sense is that if enough people use a word, or change how words are used in a context or alter how sentences are structured – then it’ll become the norm, it has to, no matter what the Queen or the grammar police think. It’s common sense?”
This has been an argument made by many a descriptive linguist over the years, and I do agree to a point. Sure, we have to recognize how people are actually using the language in their daily lives and not only how language ‘should’ be used in a vacuum or in a small set of circumstances. But how many people are “enough” to decide? And which people? Do they decide for everyone? If sheer numbers are the issue, then shouldn’t grammatical forms used in American English trump British English?
Just how well do you think that would go over?
Clearly, there needs to be more criteria than checking “if enough people use a word,” as Mr.Barton suggests. If we’re talking simply about how a community talks to each other, then there is certainly a logic to accepting common meanings of the majority, but the problems arise when we move beyond a small speech community. How do we communicate with people beyond our groups?
The thing that most people seem to recognize is that language does change. Even the most die-hard protector of “proper English” will admit that we don’t speak or write the same way that we did 100 years ago. The difference, then, is the attitude with which people greet this change. Many decry the changes they have seen in their own lifetimes, while others accept this as a normal part of human language.
Both camps have a point to make, though passions run high on both sides and so a middle ground is difficult to find. It’s true that languages may often change in directions we don’t like, and it would be wise to remember that one prescriptivist’s Golden Days of English may have been another prescriptivist’s bane at the time. Just because it’s older doesn’t mean it’s better, and stagnation is not desirable.
At the same time, changes do not always mean improvements. Sometimes languages are altered in ways that leave us with poorer, less effective means of communication. English has largely lost the subjunctive tense, for example, and so now we have to express uncertainty and hypothetical situations in a more roundabout or imprecise way. It’s true that language will balance itself: close a door but open a window, if you will. But sometimes that window can be more awkward to fit through, and we might wonder why that door had to be closed in the first place.
Language dictatorship is not viable, but neither is linguistic anarchy. Where is the middle ground? And to go back to Mr.Barton’s question, who decides where that middle ground is?
While I applaud Mr.Barton for even asking these questions, I have to conclude that his answers are not entirely helpful in finding that middle ground. His conclusions are flawed in several ways.
Logic. “Ye Olde England used words that don’t make any sense at all – the early English folk probably have the most right to tell us how to speak, though not according to the current experts. Interesting that, isn’t it?”
I’m not even sure what point he’s trying to make here. Where does he get the premise that “early English folk” should be the ones setting the standards? Is he trying to claim that the “grammar police” argue for older forms of English, and thus are hypocritical when they say it’s not right to speak the way “Ye Olde England” spoke? Why is it interesting, Mr.Barton? It feels like he is misstating an opponent’s argument to bolster his own.
Fact. “Did you know that we only use a limited number of words anyway, I once read that 200 basic words is all you need in ANY language to just get by, sure you’re not going to win a literary award, but it makes you wonder why we need as much as another 170,000.“
Could he have been thinking of this article about Fabio Capello, the Italian coach of England’s national team, and how he claimed he only needed about 100 words in English to handle the job? I’m not sure how Mr.Barton concluded from that article that 200 words is enough for an average person in their native language. That’s the vocabulary size of an average 2-year-old. No literary awards, indeed.
To even consider doing anything more than just asking for some food or getting directions somewhere, a person needs a lot more than 200 words. Real communication doesn’t happen with only 200 words.
It also doesn’t require 170,000 words. Mr.Barton is once again mistaken. The average adult has a vocabulary of about 25,000 – 35,000 words, including both active and passive vocabulary. No one is claiming that we have to know every single word in the English language, which, incidentally, is higher than 170,000.
Grammar. Yes, I’ve gone there. Mr.Barton writes an entire article railing against the grammar police, and here I am complaining about his grammar. I can’t help it. His essay is just riddled with mistakes. I’ve already mentioned the comma splices. He also has further issues with sentence structure which makes his ideas difficult to follow.
“The working class, and let’s face it – there are more of them, have specific ways of expressing themselves, and they wouldn’t change that.”
And then there’s the confusion between whose and who’s.
Who’s grammar are we (me) being measured against?”
The painful, ironic truth is, no matter how thoughtful his questions may be, or how unusual it is that a soccer player is even thinking of such things as language change, it’s difficult to take him seriously when he has so many errors in his own use of the language. It ends up sounding like a temper tantrum thrown by a student who just got a poor grade on an essay, and who is now convinced that English teachers are just big ole meanies.
He may not like it, but those grammar standards are in place for a reason. It may be frustrating – perhaps he feels that the “grammar police” are ignoring his ideas in order to focus on grammatical issues, something he doesn’t consider meaningful. But too many errors may not only distract the reader from the message, but they might also obscure the all-important ideas the writer is trying to express.
“Oh, but you know what I mean.” But do we really?
I think of it almost like cooking. You can tweak the recipe, add a little too much salt or not enough flour, or substitute an ingredient and still end up with edible food. Or you can take care to use fresh ingredients, the right amounts, and complimentary flavors, and you can make something that makes a mouth sing.
Sloppy grammar, punctuation, and word choice might get enough of your message across to avoid most misunderstandings, but being more careful and precise with your linguistic tools will get you closer to truly expressing yourself to another person.
I’m afraid my suggestion would be that Mr.Barton stick to discussions about his favorite soccer cleats. And possibly hire a proofreader.
Whew, that was a long one! Now it’s your turn:
Are you a grammar nazi? Do agree with Joey Barton? Do you even watch soccer/football? Do you crave pizza now, too?