Open letter to Sufjan Stevens

Mr. Stevens, like every other performer who feels secure in their career, has jumped onto the Cyrus-hate bandwagon, penning an open letter with the view that she needs to brush up on her grammar to be taken seriously.

Dear Sufjan Stevens,

I like your music, but you have to recognize that language changes, and freedom to use language how you will is actually integral to your own lyric writing, and, just plain writing and speaking in general. You claim that someone violated a grammar rule in a song, specifically confusing “lay” and “lie”. Without getting deeply into how this isn’t a rule for everyone, and using big scary linguistics terms, I thought I’d point out another hot-button issue for people who like to harp about grammar. This is a “rule” that perhaps even more people are aware of, yet makes no sense for our language today.

Don’t end sentences on prepositions. From your own lyrics, a few selections:

  • I can’t explain the state that I’m in”
  • I found the card where you wrote it out”
  • If seeing is right, then look where you’re at”

…Huh. You’re allowed to violate this “rule”, yet someone else must use lay and lie correctly? Tell me more about who can make grammar mistakes and who can’t. I feel like you should really be “dressed embarrassment” for this here, but there’s a word missing in that lyric allowing me to claim to not know what you mean, and tell you to give up right now on the whole enterprise. Take a page from that song you can’t stop listening to, Sufjan, and #GetItRight.

If you wish to argue that your choice was intentful, well, how do you know that the choice between “lay” and “lie” wasn’t? Maybe the lyrics of Miley Cyrus were not written for your type of college-born grammar snobbery, and rather for a set of people that appreciate the lyrics exactly how they are.

Structure is a vessel for meaning, and there are many kinds of structures and styles (one of which is exhibited by Madam Cyrus). I can’t argue that being able to hit a particular style isn’t important with the way our world works now. Within certain contexts, it is important to adhere to a subset of grammar that involves all sorts of silly and poorly motivated, no longer true “rules” about how you should write. It’s also important to know when this is not important. For instance, you wear fancy and non-sensical clothes— a tie? come on— to a job interview, but you’re allowed to dress down for a party.

When we aim for these styles and structures, we might do so with the aid of teachers or editors. As such, when this kind of criticism appears outside of the scope of teaching and learning, it’s usually a proxy for something else if not ridicule. Maybe in this case it’s ego more than anything: a new performer is in the arena, and now everyone needs to give her their blessing by critique of appearances (or grammar).

For some reason, grammar is one of the remaining forms for personal attack, that seems to allow many people to say something without the usual side effects of having said something rude. If this critique stems from not liking these features of speech, how would it go over if someone were to instead say, “No, I don’t like you because you’re ugly/fat/stupid”, or instead if they’re based on a moral stance on the way things should be, how does it work to say: “You need to lose some weight for people to take you seriously.” Instead people can say things like, “You shouldn’t split infinitives” as a rebuttal to an argument very much not about grammar, even though in speech these are quite common. This is hardly a quality kind of communication.

I’ve tried to leave out some of the technical things and linguistic grounds building up these views, but anyone who’s curious could do a little followup reading on prescriptivism and Robert Lowth. I’ll summarize to say that Lowth’s original ground-breaking grammar from 1762 is still the source of rules that people hold over our heads. Lowth’s grammar is also one of the influences behind Elements of Style, which polices using features it cannot even clearly define, simultaneously violating these rules. Here’s a worthy critique.

The takeaway here though is this: stylistic variation is key in lyrics, writing, speech, language, identity, presentation; if you set up a set of shoddy “rules”, which you use to tell someone their language or their identity is unacceptable, take a long hard look at those rules and see if they apply to you too. Next consider the worth of these rules in the context, and look at what you’re really saying. Finally, if you need to hear it from the Slate in order to believe it, go ahead and read Are You a Language Bully? Cut it out.

So, Sufjan, I’m waiting for you to re-record all of the songs where you ignored these arbitrary rules. I’m not gonna take you seriously until you do.