A linguist in the rough?

Joey Barton

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?

Good ole Gomer Pyle. How he loved his dictionaries.

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.

I bet Conrad could tell us a thing or two about how to use language. And English was his second language!

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.

Mmm, now I want pizza.

“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?

18 thoughts on “A linguist in the rough?

  1. I’m not a grammar Nazi. I use the color green and pleasantly colored highlighters when I read compositions. I choose to underline problems and then comment below the text of the student so it reads like a letter rather than me in the face of the piece/writer. I also, attach a rubric that provides a description of their writing. Correction is good, self-correction is better. I like rough drafts to be submitted in their own handwriting in ink. I want to see their instances of self-correction. So no to pencils and erasers, and no to word.

    Still it’s a dilemma. How does one give feedback respectfully and with care, so learning does take place? That being said, we have a whole lot of work in front of us redirecting the errors so that students will be taken seriously in their expression, encouraging them to want to express themselves more richly and precisely, and hopefully reinforcing them to write and to speak with fluency.

    If I were this footballer’s former English teacher, I would be proud that he is contemplating old lessons. It would excite me that he is attempting to move forward (pardon the pun) in this maze of structures and vocabulary. I would take this as evidence that he is not only writing, but reading and listening, too.

    Oh dear, now I will submit this lengthy comment/sample of my writing and see if it does bring out the grammar Nazis. :)

    • Georgettesullins, I also use a green pen to mark the mistakes. It’s much more pleasant to me and to the students as well, I hope. Limr, what do you mean by ‘comma splices’: just using commas too often or using them in some special way?

      • A comma splice is a type of run-on sentence in which a comma is used where there should be a full stop. His post is full of them.

        As I said to Georgette, I do still use red, but my other common colors are green and purple. I like green the best, but probably just because green is my favorite color ;)

    • I still use red pen, though not exclusively. Sometimes I’ll use it specifically for students that I know aren’t really looking at the feedback as a way to get their attention. I try to give both positive and ‘negative’ comments because they need to know what they are doing well as much as they need to know what their errors are. Actually, this is one reason why grading takes so long – I give a ton of comments!

      I love the idea of seeing their self correction, but I can’t bring myself to allow handwritten work. I find it’s a bit too much of a slippery slope for my students. I’ve seen lots of them just not take an assignment seriously unless it’s typed. It’s enough of a struggle to get them to remember to put a heading and to capitalize both their first and last name. I do incorporate self-correction in the second half of the semester. Often I’ll have the do an in-class writing assignment and then ask them to do a revised draft at home, bringing me both rough and final drafts.

  2. “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.”

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t let the opportunity pass me by. You’ve missed the capital letter at the beginning of the second sentence (or mistakenly used a full stop) :-P

    I’m afraid that I don’t have much time for Joey Barton; he’s not a nice man. However, it’s good to see the subject tackled in this way.

    Good piece…thanks!

    • Ah fantastic! This is what I get for proofreading at 2 a.m. Thanks for the heads up…trotting off to correct it now.

      I’ve honestly never heard of him before my friend sent me the link to his post.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I do wonder about the question of who is the arbiter of language. You can complain about people using a rule of language incorrectly, but if enough people are using it, it becomes the new rule. All the old rules we hold dear were once new.

    • You’re right, of course, that if usage reaches critical mass, it can become the new rule. A lot of regionalisms, for example, will probably never become standard because they may never reach that critical mass outside of the region. (Here’s an article about a possible pronunciation exception:http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_good_word/2012/08/northern_cities_vowel_shift_how_americans_in_the_great_lakes_region_are_revolutionizing_english_.html)

      But there’s often a stigma to overcome as well. For example, the rules of using either ‘be’ or null in Black Vernacular English instead of the conjugated verb has been documented by William Labov and its usage has certainly spread, but I don’t know if that’s the kind of “error” that would ever be absorbed into a standard version of English. So there’s still an invisible line that doesn’t get crossed.

      I think an error that starts to interfere with comprehension would also, I imagine, tend to remain an “error” rather than “the new normal”.

  4. For all the bad press prescriptivism gets, I think it serves, ideally, to provide a clear set of rules that can tell you how you’ll be perceived by various strata of society. For example, Joey Barton is getting a lesson, whether he likes it or not, in what his society expects of someone who wishes to be taken seriously as a pundit.

    Every so often, I’m asked to look over resumes for entry-level editorial positions, and it’s easy to eliminate 90 percent of the applicants right off the bat, because their emails, letters, and resumes include errors that range from grammatical gaffes to obvious cluelessness about appropriate diction and tone. They’ll never get the job, but what’s worse is that because no one has ever been clear with them about the (yes, arbitrary, but still active) rules of grammar, they’ll never know why they didn’t get the job. When the kid who attended the $30,000-per-year prep school is more likely to be taught old-fashioned prescriptivist grammar while his public-school, state-college peer is not, the latter won’t fully benefit from the social mobility an education is supposed to give him. We can crow about descriptivism all we want, but prescriptivists hold our lives in their hands.

    • That’s a good point. Complain about ‘grammar nazis’ but the ones who benefit are the ones who learn the rules and apply them in the right context.

      I disagree with the presriptivists who seem to take issue with Every.Single.Deviation from a standard form of the language. These are the people who don’t understand context, or the idea that sometimes breaking rules is more appropriate at times than using the more formal rules. But I also disagree with the descriptivists who think that anything goes, that anything should go because that’s just how language works, man.

      There’s a middle ground. There has to be allowances for language change and innovation, but there also have to be standards. Without accepting change, we stagnate and die. Without accepting standards, we have linguistic anarchy which results in less communication, not more. I mean, just look at teenage slang that doesn’t outlive their teen years? A group that continues to use their own jargon, their own in-group terms or pronunciations or grammatical structures…well, isn’t that on its way to being a different language? How did we get the Romance languages out of Latin? I’m not saying the genesis of a derivative language is a bad thing, but if more global communication is the goal, then that is sort of defeating it, no? ;)

      There needs to be a (less jerry-rigged) term for “middle-grounder-ists”!

      Actually, that term is a good example here. I just looked it up and technically, it should be “jerry built” (for a negative connotation) or “jury rigged” for a more positive connotation. It’s so often confused – see above! – that one must ask, at what point does the correct word just become “jerry rigged”?

  5. WOW! This (both post and comments) is a lot to unpack. My gutt reaction is to offer kudos to Joey B for attempting to post his viewpoint in “an arena” that is not his normal playing field. I’m finding myself self-conscious as I write my reaction, anticipating red ink if I make an error, yet, Leonore, your content is so wonderful, that I want to support you by weighing in with my thoughts.

    My second reaction was to recall a post you wrote when someone lashed out at you re an issue he had over a word he felt you misused, but now I can’t find it in your archives, and I wanted to refer to specifics, so, cyber-space will have to live on without my two cents re my second reaction.

    Re red ink: I was one of those “see me after class” elementary school students, and so when I taught expository writing at Hunter College (via a student-teacher program), I could not bring myself to be on the look out for errors (at least on someone’s first draft). Having a paper, that you have supposedly labored over, returned to you laden with red ink is heart wrenching. I prefer to look for the narrative one is trying to achieve and see how I might be able to make (grammar) suggestions which might help the flow. Having said this, the dilemma remains tough for me, not pointing out errors is a little like letting someone walk out of the house, office, etc with toilet paper stuck to their shoe, or spinach stuck in their teeth, for fear of offending them if you point it out. (In the “olden days,” it was the to tell or not tell someone that their slip was showing). But, now I’ve digressed and have probably done so with many errors.

    As for our “friend” Joey B, I’m afraid I’m in the camp that gives him two thumbs up for putting his writing on the line. I think when one begins to appreciate the gift of writing, they will in turn want to know “the rules of the road,” as they embark on their journey.

    I believe that Jamaica Kincaid once said you must know grammar rules in order to break them, as she did in her one sentence essay,”Girl,” where she wanted to “show” (with her prose) that life can seem like a run on sentence. However, I suppose Joey B is probably not breaking rules to make his point.

    • It’s really funny that you use the metaphor of having toilet paper stuck to a shoe because that’s exactly the one I use with my students.

      And yes, unfortunately, I don’t think Mr.Barton was breaking rules to make a point ;)

      I certainly don’t want to make students feel bad about having ink all over their paper, and I always try to give feedback on what the student has done well in addition to weaknesses to work on. However, I’m also not doing them any favors if I don’t point out the areas that they haven’t mastered yet. I know that they have to move on to higher levels and meet a certain standard and it’s my job to make sure they can meet those standards. The only way I can do that is by making them aware of the areas they don’t do well yet. I don’t point out every mistake and I try to focus on consistent errors so they know what areas to work on. Without fixing those areas, they are going to hit a brick wall.

      I also focus on giving feedback first on their ideas and development and lastly on their grammar (it depends on what a student’s weakest area is. Some have great grammar but their essays are far too short, underdeveloped, and illogical. Others have fantastic ideas but can’t express them well enough because their grammatical and mechanical errors seriously interfere with the clarity of their ideas. And that is, to me anyway, the whole purpose of pointing out their errors – to teach them how to clearly express their message.

      I think the post might have been “Repentant linguist is repentant…to a point” https://asalinguist.com/2012/02/29/repentant-linguist-is-repentant-to-a-point/

      I make the point that yes, the mistake was silly and I deserved to be teased about it, but that some who criticized me took it too far, into the realm of suggesting that the one spelling error should take precedence over every idea I expressed in that post.

  6. I’m not a grammar nazi, but I am a business and technical writing teacher at the university level. Context is the key here. A comma splice in an email to a friend is irrelevant (cause I wouldn’t choose to be friends with someone who was offended by a comma splice between friends). But a comma splice in an email application with my resume is highly relevant. If this topic interests you, check out what I had to say at http://proswrite.com/2012/08/14/shibboleths-and-entering-the-professions/.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. I think the importance of context gets lost on both sides of the fence. A true grammar “nazi” ignores the flexibility in more informal contexts, and the “anarchist” ignores more formal contexts in which more precision and accuracy is required.

      The title in your article includes one of my favorite words (shibboleths), so if I weren’t already inclined, I’m definitely going to check out your link now.

  7. I’ve just been nominated for the One Lovely Blog Award, as you can see if you link to http://margaret21.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/one-lovely-blog-award/ In my turn, I’d like to nominate your blog. You’re under no obligation to nominate any blogs in your turn, but please do if you’d like to. The ‘rules’ I was asked to adhere to are at the bottom of my post. I so enjoy your blog, and I’m glad to have the chance to say a public ‘thank you’.

    • Thank you, Margaret! I’d be delighted to accept, though it might take me a couple of weeks since my classes start the day after tomorrow. But then there will be the sweet spot just after the first week or so madness ends but before the onslaught of grading begins :)

  8. Pingback: Link love: language (46) « Sentence first

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