National Grammar I'm Awesome Day

A day set aside for a prestige variety of English seems nice, but then wait– it's kind of horrible: it's all about self-congratulation and shaming peoples' lack of educational opportunities.

National Grammar Day was founded in 2008 by the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, a blog (“online journal”) for grammar mavens to promote their views on the English language. I’m not trying to imply that there are any direct nefarious purposes involved in the existence of this society, and everyone can see why: language is connected to power, and having a good sense of English style means that you can really get ahead in the world by writing.

However, therein lies the rub. This would all be great if everyone had equal access to the tools to learn this prestige variety of English. If education were equal for all, the establishment of an English language variety used as the standard would seem completely helpful: we need to communicate, and there are so many Englishes in the world that it would be great to have some standard for us to communicate where we may well not understand eachothers’ dialects if they were all written.

The problem, obviously, is that not everyone has these opportunities and access. As such, promotion of “good grammar” sets up the idea that there is also “bad grammar”, and that people may be divided into the language haves and the language have-nots. The differences between these categories are arbitrary: there is nothing inherently ungrammatical about using passives, ending sentences on prepositions, or inserting words between the infinitive to and the verb.

If forced to define who is user of bad grammar, you’re left with the distressing task of pointing out that actually, it’s people without your same education. It’s wrong to deride people for differences in wealth, physical appearance, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender expression; it’s wrong to continue to enable systems where these distinctions are connected with power, and who can achieve their goals and who cannot. It should thus be wrong to also take part in maintaining linguistic systems that share this task.

Yet, what is the purpose of a National Grammar Day? Cycling around blogs, social media, and even news sites, you find tactless reminders of how someone is doing things wrong, tips to improve your own grammar, and even CNN is covering “worst grammar fails”— you know, because they’re the epitome of good journalism, grammar, and all sorts of things. As an aside, I find it funny that the neologism “fails” is tolerated here, either this is an inconsistency in policing, or maybe I should be glad that some grammar police are a bit more permissive of language changes than others.

Instead, what if this day were about raising awareness about educational disparities. Maybe instead of pointing out how some people are doing great, and teasing people who are not, we could instead make progress at pointing out the problems that cause some people not to do well with education.