Politics, Grammar, and Violence

Over the last several weeks, writing on grammar from a macro level as opposed to a micro error-centric level, as
I’ve been prone to do in the past, I have come to the conclusion grammar is inherently a violent political act based in power dynamics associated with imagined authority, a simulacra of control.

Case in point, the comma splice: if you hold celebrity status a comma splice is a perfectly acceptable construction, but if you are a student schlumping through the halls of academia, or if you struggle with Facebook posts because you actively avoid lay versus lie, or affect versus effect, or prefer using your own branded version of English, and are exhausted by nitpickers. who constantly bemoan and shame the use of  newly acquired words such as fleek—then the comma splice conjunctive construction is completely off the table.

A friend of mine, just the other day, we were having a conversation via text messaging, and she gasped when she reread the back and forth. “So many mistakes… :(((”

I said it did not matter and she replied, “It is hard to believe this; the only way is the right way or the right way is the only way!” She speaks several languages, and she did not begin with English. Her written English voice is beautiful and often nonconforming to the exacting precision required by the majority’s stance on Standard English grammar.

Nick Riemer writes about learning the English language for both native speakers and English Second Language Learners, and he suggests the written word’s grammar confines. Riemer writes that writing is taught “in an essentially reductive and classificatory approach to human diversity that defines a single normative model of language to which linguistic diversity is referred.” Riemer further argues the exclusion of other Englishes diminishes the language in general and reduces “the kaleidoscopic manifestations of language to the operation of a unique and singular structure.”  

The unique singular structure is what we in the business call Standard English, the grammatical rules for which we are told have been codified. But codified by whom? Gunnel Melchers and Philip Shaw in their introduction to World Englishes write, “There is no such thing at present as a Standard English which is not British or American or Australian, etc. There is no International Standard (yet), in the sense that publishers cannot currently aim at a standard which is not locally bound.” Standard English is not easily defined. The term suggests good English or grammatically correct English, but no definite codification for the English language exists anywhere. This lack of law-based grammar in the English language stands in stark contrast to the German orthography reform of 1996, which sat down actual language and spelling laws for Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. But even here, the Federal Constitutional Court said people could still spell as they pleased, despite the official reform.

For English, we have style guides which are only suggestions—not directives. Yet, these style guides are held up as Holy Grail. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is almost worshipped. And Strunk and White order their readers around: “Do,” “Don’t,” “Use,” “Avoid,” “Omit,” “Keep” (Lang 27). The exacting adherence to so-called grammatical standards imposes regularity and control, a direct reflection of our society and culture: do not color outside the lines.

But writing is not just a skill; it is not like learning to ride a bicycle or learning how to drive a car; writing is simply not utilitarian as many would like language to be. Instead, writing is an expression of the author, an extension of the person’s very character and nature. It is the brain on the page. We do not, for example, mistake Jane Austin for Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway for Cormac McCarthy. Authors’ words on the page are distinct personalities, unique and individualistic. Their writing is a representation of themselves. Questioning someone’s grammar is questioning someone’s character.

So quibbling over a comma splice is akin to silencing a voice. The difference between less and few is negligible as is affect and effect, who and whom, singular they and plural they. Strunk and White suggest, for example, to show possession Charles’ should be spelled Charles’s, an outdated concern according to Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty who says the possessive apostrophe is not a matter of grammar as much as a matter of style choice.

Formal grammar study does not adhere to the memorization and use of an official list of specific rules. Instead, formal grammar study examines how words relate to each other in real world practice. Still, many have an attitude that “bad writing […] is bad not only as writing, but because bad writing itself is bad, a form of wrong-doing, a perversion related to other and more lurid ethical wastelands such as corporate and white-collar crime, lying in government, and even overt acts of social violence” (Lang 24). The actual performed violence, however, is not enacted by the writer, but by the corrector. Moving focus from what is said to how it is said removes the inherent power of the message and gives control over to the corrector. Correcting grammar allows the message to be flatly ignored and overlooked and makes the speaker small.

To be clear, writers do not need heavy grammatical drilling, exercises in pronoun antecedent identification or in-depth lectures on gerunds; they need instead instruction in rhetoric, which is a completely different animal. Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing, not the removal or separation of the person from the writing, which is always the agenda of the stodgy grammarian—misappropriating for themselves power in the classroom, the boardroom, and on Facebook. Rhetoric, however, allows one to discover and communicate meaning beyond the confines of grammar.

Shifting emphasis from grammar instruction to rhetoric instruction may be a fine line. For certain, rhetoric does embrace well-thought out and planned grammatical structure, but not necessarily accepted conventional constructions. Grammar is a part of rhetoric, but not the whole parcel. Good rhetoric is mastery of the power intrinsic in language; rhetoric commands grammatica in the Middle Ages’ sense of the word, that of enchantment, glamour, and magic, the qualities that make people or things appealing.   

Levi-Strauss, not the blue jeans, but the French guy who developed structural anthropology theories, the guy who purported the so-called “savage” mind had the same structures as the “civilized” mind, that people are the same across the board, he argued the written word evolved through the ruling classes and was/is utilized as a weapon against subjugated people groups. Writing, for Levi-Strauss, is a means of violent control, a way to suppress thought.

In the 1980 three-act play Translations by Brian Friel, thought-control through the English language is at the forefront. Native Irish place names are anglicized and standardized, replaced with an official British ordinance map. Translations explains how the totality of Irish identity is completely changed for the benefit of the ruling class. Here in the U.S., we see the wiping away of language and thought with American Indian Boarding schools. The flippant often unthought out approach to the correction of English grammar may seem trivial in comparison to the genocide of an entire language, but fixing someone else’s grammar is the exact same act.


Lang, Berel. “Strunk and White and Grammar as Morality.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 65.1 (1982): 23-30. Jstor. Web. 19 May 2016.

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