COLUMN: Grammar doesn’t equal intelligence


Killeen Reidy, Columnist

“Oh no, it’s the grammar police!” This is something that I heard a few times after switching to an English degree, which while funny, is entirely inaccurate. Even though I have learned “proper” English and the grammar expectations that go along with it all my life, continuing to do so in college, I have also realized the harm that the mindset of “proper” English has on our society.

The idea of proper English is in and of itself a classist ideal. It’s a way of separating those with access to high quality education and raised around the dialect from those whose location or class has led them to being raised with a different dialect and affected their access to high quality education. This is not to say that those without access to higher quality education, especially regarding English, are stupid, just the opposite in fact. I believe that one’s grammar or use of uncommon slang isn’t a measure of their intelligence and shouldn’t continue to be treated as such.

While I have become increasingly aware of this fact throughout my life, a defining moment when I became certain that proper English isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is when my Structure of English class were doing group presentations on articles from our textbook. My group was actually focused on an article titled “Is British English the best English?”, and we decided to focus on the fact that the differences between them were interesting but don’t really point one as better than the other. In fact, the article brought up how non-native speakers across the world are evolving another English dialect that works just fine, even if some grammar is not always followed. Our presentation along with others that day sparked a nice discussion on why there is such importance placed on following proper English.

You might be wondering how this really applies to you, especially if you’re someone like me who hasn’t really had to deal with speaking a dialect that has marked you as less intelligent. Well consider this, I’m sure we all have had to deal with asking if we can go to the restroom and the teacher responding with “I don’t know, can you?”, in a condescending tone because we didn’t use may. Now remember that frustration and imagine if everyone around you was saying you weren’t speaking the language you’ve been raised with correctly. Imagine if that not using ‘may’ instead of ‘can’ affected your grades or chances of getting a job or promotion.

Then you eventually decide that you’ll learn and assimilate as much as possible in order to keep progressing in the world. But wait, you come home and if you use ‘may’ you get accused of thinking you’re better than the people who raised you and you now have to code switch wherever you go. Code switching is most generally associated with race, but as always racism intertwines heavily with classism.

So I understand that grammar is important, I mean I’m still an English major, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aware of some of the inherent biases that come with the idea of “proper” English. In my opinion, a language’s only job is to communicate with others. Even if you have a few spelling mistakes or use the wrong your/you’re, if you’re able to get your ideas across, then you’ve succeeded in using a language correctly.

Killeen Reidy is a junior English major. They can be reached at [email protected] or at 581-2812.