“It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it”: Delusions of grandeur among language elitists

How close would we come to the apocalypse without grammar snobs’ friendly reminders that we don’t use language “properly”? My never-ending fascination with the minds of grammar snobs has led me to an interesting finding. At least in the minds of self-proclaimed authorities on “proper” usage, English and all that it touches would literally burn to the ground without their dependable and well-intended chastisement (by the way, you’re welcome for the use of literally in a figurative context).

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve written a lot about why grammar snobbery is not the objective science it pretends to be. I’ve also pointed out how people’s views on language are a source of prejudice in employment and education. To sum up briefly, self-appointed grammar experts make arbitrary judgments about others’ language. They then point to others’ failure to fall in line with their views of language as a deficit in intelligence or in work ethic.

Interestingly, many grammar snobs, especially those working in higher education (and oh my are there a lot of them), will at some point encounter the opposition of a linguist, who will tell them that their views are arbitrary, or as sociolinguist Matthew Gordon put it for some of his grammar snob colleagues, “faith-based”. In my experience, grammar snobs are not typically swayed by linguists’ objections to their views on grammar. Indeed, they view themselves as performing a necessary function. As Ben Yagoda writes in his recent blog post, being “a grammar arbiter” is “a tough job, but someone has to do it”. This comment made me interested in why language elitists seem to think their complaints are essential for society. I’ve found that they have two general strategies for justifying their grammar snobbery. In the sections below, I’ll talk briefly about each, give examples, and then provide a critique of the logic and evidence behind each one.

Maintaining our language’s ability to communicate

The first line of reasoning goes something like this (these are not my ideas rather I’m attempting to summarize the grammar snobs’ argument). Language exists in a somewhat delicate equilibrium enabling us to communicate but only if we all play by the same rules. Hence, when people break “the rules”, they are pushing the language further and further into a state where it will no longer be a useful tool for communication. We can observe this in a comment I saved from Ben Yagoda’s recent blog post about the word literally and grammar snob’s anger toward its usage in sentences like “I literally died of laughter”:

I tend to think of some high-precision words as being something like highly specific antibiotics. I.e. if you use them for everything, they eventually aren’t useful for the purposes for which only they will do. It deeply doesn’t matter what word is used for an intensifier […]

But literally is the only one I can think of that is a single word for “No, this is not a metaphor, this happened out here in real-real land.”  At various times, I have felt the hair on the back of my neck literally stand up; while climbing I have been literally at the end of my rope; as an excessively romantic teenager I literally felt weak and dizzy when someone said yes to a date. […]

And if we overuse literally as a general intensifier, it won’t be clear that we’re using it for the meaning that only it carries.  Figuratively there’s a resemblance to giving the antibiotic that is the only specific left for resistant gonnorhea to everyone who walks in with a cold; you waste its particular power and then don’t have it when you need it.

The commenter uses an interesting metaphor of antibiotics suggesting the urgency of this issue that if we don’t utilize only the prototypical usage of a word then that meaning will disappear and we will be without the ability to express a particular meaning. I can almost imagine someone running around helplessly screaming “I need a new adverb! Stat!”

However, despite what might seem to be a reasonable concern, the problem seems not to be as dire as the commenter suggests. In fact, as Jesse Sheidlower (editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary) points out, we know that literally has been used in this fashion since at least the 1700s, and grammar snobs have been warning about our “improper” usage of it for over 100 years.  What the commenter seems to be missing is that high frequency words (for example, understand) almost always have multiple meanings. We communicate in spite of this (perhaps even because of it), and to my knowledge there haven’t been any epidemics of people who claimed to be “literally dying of laughter” and who did not receive medical treatment due to our ignorance of the non-metaphorical meaning of literally (Imagine this headline: Man dies needlessly of excessive laughter, friends ignored his cries of “I’m literally dying”).

It’s also worth pointing out that, in cases like this, language elitists seem to ignore the communicative purposes that the things that arbitrarily annoy them serve. Indeed, the commenter claims it does not matter whether you use literally or another alternative like verytotallyor absolutely. In fact, these words are not interchangeable even in cases where literally is not used in the non-metaphorical sense.  To show this, I’ve taken some random example sentences from the spoken section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Try to replace literally in these sentences with very, totally, or absolutely.  It should be clear that even though one or two will occasionally work, they are not entirely interchangeable:

  • a sense of relief that we had resolved the issues that had come up literally at the 11th hour
  • The party has literally split into two wings: one in favor of Pat Buchanan, one against him
  • Advocates say that a growing number of travelers are becoming victims of warring drug gangs, who target them for robbery and rape and kidnapping, and some simply disappear. They literally become invisible.
  • So that was done on an iPhone literally sitting there in a park
  • he’s literally trying to scare everybody to death
  • This time, quite literally, the whole world is watching.

Literally seems to have a general sense of exaggeration and none of the other words the commenter mentions totally captures its meaning or is appropriate in every context where it’s used. Hence, literally is serving a specific function, one that goes beyond its meaning of non-metaphorical and one that doesn’t seem to be entirely fulfilled by other words.

Saving us from the demise of education in general

A second reason that grammar snobs give for why they do what they do is that they believe they are saving us from an education system that is allegedly (in their view) failing.  There seem to be a number of reasons that language elitists claim  “improper” grammar is indicative of failing education in general.  Much of it has to do with relying on the mistaken idea that grammar and language are Logical in an abstract, universal sense.

Recently in the United Kingdom, the magazine The Idler has announced that it will be giving out The Bad Grammar Awards, which they say will be awarded for “the worst use of English over the last 12 months by people who should know better”.  When asked why such an award was necessary in a BBC interview, Tom Hodgkinson (editor of The Idler) claimed because a Latin teacher “pointed out to [him and others] repeatedly that grammatical standards were declining”. Hodginkson also reports that he became concerned that “grammar wasn’t being properly taught” at his children’s school. Without knowledge of “proper” grammar, Hodgkinson claims, we won’t be able to understand the “official language”, so it’s a good idea to “train people into understanding their own language”.

There are a number of reasons to find Hodgkinson and these awards suspect. First and foremost, the approach seems to make little sense educationally. I’m not sure what Hodgkinson and other language elitists feel they are accomplishing by trying to shame people for their grammar. While we might all remember out of fear of being shamed again that we shouldn’t violate their rules, it doesn’t seem likely to be an effective, holistic pedagogy. Indeed, it seems less like teaching and more like bullying.

In addition, we should be skeptical any time we’re told that we need help understanding our own language. Hodgkinson points out that there’s “an official language”. In the US, we often talk about “standard” English. However, Hodgkinson and others pretend that the rules for such a “standard” have been written down and are fully agreed upon. No such set of rules exists. No such agreement exists.

The problems with “the rules” Hodgkinson and his colleagues point to are apparent in the complaints they make of a letter written by academics criticizing a proposed national curriculum in the United Kingdom. The sentence goes like this: “Much of [the curriculum] demands too much too young”. Neville Gwynne suggests that the sentence should read: “demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much”. Two things are clear from this. First, no one required any help understanding the original sentence, so obviously the complaint can’t be about helping us understand our own language. Second, this criticism sets up a convenient and arbitrary rule: “‘young’ is an adjective, and cannot ever be an adverb”. However, when I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I found that “young” is used as an adverb in a number of common phrases such as these:

  • “died too young” (for example, “I blamed my father, who died too young“)
  • “married too young” (for example, “He said he had married too young“)

Certainly, “young” is more commonly used as an adjective, but words can frequently belong to multiple word classes.  (UPDATE: a reader made an insightful observation about this issue in the comments below; he (Joe) points out that calling young an adverb is probably not the best description.  He also notes that there are some differences between the examples I provide and the one that the grammar snobs criticize).

There seems to be a mismatch then between the grammar snobs’ purported educational goals of making people understand their own language better and the actual things they are doing. Indeed, their methods seem to be completely counter-intuitive if they truly wanted to help people (making fun of them with a “Bad Grammar” award seems like an unlikely way to go about educating). In addition, the criticisms they make clearly have nothing to do with people’s comprehension and indeed point out features of language that are quite common even apparently among scholars.

Language elitists and social capital

If the purposes that grammar snobs give for their shaming of others are dubious, then what are they actually doing? My own theory is that what they really want is a niche advantage in the rat race of social capital.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is famous for using the economic concept of capital to refer to things like aesthetic taste and language.  Capital in this sense refers to assets that both represent our current power and can be used to help gain more power.  Money is an obvious example.  However, Bourdieu recognized that social phenomena like opinions about which wine to drink or the way you use language can be capital as well.  Although from a strictly economic sense drinking a cheap Budweiser at the bar may appear to be the right decision, we may actually gain more in other forms of non-monetary capital by buying an expensive New England micro-brew and telling all of our friends about how much we just can’t stand the taste of Budweiser.  This is social capital.  It’s the type of capital you can gain by being seen as someone who has “good taste”.

Social capital then is precisely what grammar snobs are after.  Making others believe that they know what’s “correct” in language is a way to establish themselves as authorities on language.  Since they’re also trying to convince you that “good grammar” makes you smart, they’re hoping to buy the perception that they’re intelligent, knowledgeable, and wise.  If they amass enough of this social capital, they can cash it in for financial capital as well: a job in an English department, the chance to work as a freelance copy editor, or a contract for their latest book on why no one else uses English “properly”.

Language elitists are of course not alone in seeking out social capital (indeed most of us are after it at least some of the time), and if their only crime was being interested in developing reputation then they’d hardly be condemnable.  However, there are two problems with the “good taste” they peddle.  First, on the empirical side of things, “the rules” they speak of are usually arbitrary, and the connections they draw between language and Logic or language and intelligence are simply non-existent.  The other problem is that grammar snobbery is often a subtle tactic for fallaciously attacking (using ad hominem attacks) the credibility or intelligence of the grammar snob’s target. Mark Liberman notes that in the case of the Bad Grammar awards, there appears to be a political motivation involved: attempting to discredit a group of scholars as punishment for their criticisms of a proposed national curriculum. Indeed one of the judges (Toby Young) said “The 100 educators have inadvertently made an argument for precisely the sort of formal education the letter is opposing”. How convenient.

Ben Yagoda wrote that being “an arbiter of language” (that is a self-appointed decider of what’s “proper” in language) is a “tough job but someone has to do it”. Having examined a couple of the reasons why someone “has to do it”, I’ll have to respectfully disagree. I’m quite certain our communication would go on unimpeded and our educational institutions would continue on just fine without grammar snobbery and language elitism.

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Posted in Prescriptivism and language prejudice
5 comments on ““It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it”: Delusions of grandeur among language elitists
  1. Joe says:

    I took this up in Language Log, but nobody followed up on it so I thought I would see if you were interested. I wouldn’t characterize “too young” as an adverb phrase in “I blame my father, who died too young,” or “he said he had married too young.” I would describe them as adjectives functioning as predicative adjuncts, both with subject NPs as predicands (“father” in the former (via the relative), “he” in the latter). This distinguishes them from adverbs, which do not function as predicatives and thus lack predicands (cf. “he died suddenly,” where there is no predicative relation between “suddenly” and “he”). In the example under discussion (“Much of [the curriculum] demands too much too young”) I initially thought “too young” was an adjective functioning as predicative adjunct, but without an expressed predicand (it is, however, understood that it is the students who are too young). (I’ve since changed my mind, but that is another issue). Technically speaking, I would consider a predicative that lacks an expressed predicand to be ungrammatical in English in all but imperatives. (After all, it is one of the criteria by which we can distinguish adjectives from prepositions that have arisen by conversion from adjectives). This isn’t snobbery, it is just an accurate description of English syntax. I spent a good amount of time on COCA looking for a predicative adjunct without an expressed predicand and was unable to find an example other than “too much too young” (which I think has been reanalyzed as an NP, so it isn’t ungrammatical in this context). I’d be curious to see whether you can.

    I agree with almost everything you say here, but I would hate for us to give up the notion of ungrammaticality because of prescriptivist poppycock. My notion of “ungrammatical” is certainly different from Gwynne’s.

  2. nsubtirelu says:

    Joe, I think you’re right to point out that the sentences “Much of [the curriculum] demands too much too young” and the examples I took from COCA have a relevant structural difference: the lack of the overtly expressed predicand.

    To clarify my post, I’m not necessarily saying that we can’t say something is ungrammatical. I would personally not call the “too much, too young” example ungrammatical (although from what I understand you seem to be in agreement about that), although it requires a complex and somewhat unconventional description.

    Certainly there are ways in which we can point to things being ungrammatical. For example, I can purposefully construct a sentence that violates the grammar of English: *Grammar English not allow sentence this. I could also make a one-time, in the moment error that produces a sentence that is not grammatical. I think the other example from Liberman’s post (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4606) is ungrammatical in this sense, that the authors would not have intended to create this structure if they’d noticed it (the length and complexity of the sentence seems to have led to them not noticing): “Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”. Of course (and Joe I’m not accusing you of saying these things I’m just clarifying for other potential readers), none of these ways in which we can be ungrammatical suggest the need for us to “learn our own language” nor does the second one likely impede communication in any way (creating artificial ungrammatical sentences could lead to communication problems of course). The sentence that begins “little account is taken” suggests a possible need for careful proofreading so that our intended phrasing matches what we put on the page. However, it has none of the political implications that the grammar snobs suggest nor does it point to the authors as being “illiterate” as also suggested by Gwynne.

    Hence, what I mean by grammar snobbery is not someone trying to accurately describe language as people use it and intend to use it (as you’re doing Joe). It’s about calling the purposeful ways that other people use language “wrong” and then drawing unwarranted conclusions about their intelligence, credibility, work ethic, etc. from the presence of “improper” language.

  3. Hello,

    I realise this reply is a bit late, but I have only just come across the link to this post. I don’t fully agree with your post, though, which is why I figured I’d leave some thoughts.

    See, to some extent, I do agree with these “grammar snobs”: young people’s grammar is declining very rapidly. Now, I am not a native English speaker, but I often find people from the UK or from the US writing down things which just make me wonder whether I am so incredibly intelligent, or whether they have missed part of their education, and since I’m not the most arrogant person there is, I usually end up on that second option.

    Of course, these grammar snobs take it too far. Way too far. Some of the examples you mentioned really don’t matter much, and they should not be complaining about that. But when I see someone write down a sentence like “Your to nice”, while what they mean is actually “You’re too nice”, I can’t help but cringe a little.

    Particularly your vs you’re, too vs to and its vs it’s are things people constantly confuse, and a lot of people actually don’t seem to know what the right spelling is. I am in university right now, and when I work together I groups, I have often found fellow students making those mistakes in actual papers they were planning to hand in on an academic level, and the worst thing is that these students aren’t bothered by it because the teachers only assess the actual work, and the way it is written hardly matters.

    To me, that’s not a good thing. I’m sure I make plenty of mistakes (this comment is probably full of them), but the very basic grammatical rules should be clear to as many people as possible, and although I rarely ever do this myself, I’m not sure if I truly oppose people who correct such obvious mistakes.

    That’s just my view though. If you’re still reading this, I’d love to know what you think!

  4. nsubtirelu says:


    Thanks for the long thoughtful response. I’ll see if I can address some of the things you’re saying.

    You point to an example sentence that I think is useful to talk about: “Your to nice”. I’m not sure if you read another post I wrote about things like this (if you’re interested, here’s the link: https://linguisticpulse.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/on-table-manners-and-spelling-errors-how-we-use-grammar-to-discriminate/), but I’ll try to summarize some things that were brought up there. In particular, it’s good to think about what it means to be “wrong” in language. I would say the sentence you’ve pointed to is wrong in the sense that the speaker most likely doesn’t intend to make these two homophone errors (your for you’re and to for too).

    This is of course different from some of the other things I’ve talked about especially in this post like the word literally, which is an intentional choice on the part of the speaker used for a particular effect or to express a particular identity. Basically, what has happened is we have a social convention that says your is for the possessive determiner and you’re is the contraction of you and are. There isn’t really a competing social convention, and, unless the speaker is trying to be creative or subversive, this is unintentional and potentially represents lack of awareness of the convention, something that we would assume would be taught at some point in school.

    It’s potentially useful to point spelling problems like the ones in “Your to nice” out to the writer (to correct it as you say), because s/he most likely would prefer not to break the social convention. In this case, you’re not being a grammar snob; you are looking out for the interests of the writer or the publication, business, etc. that the writer represents. Assuming that you are still being the thoughtful, respectful person that you’ve shown yourself to be in your reply here, I would say that by correcting these problems in a paper you are helping the person put forth the message in the way that the person intended (which is different from telling people that they’re using literally “incorrectly”, since in that case you’re attempting to modify the intended language).

    However, we should keep what errors like this really signify in perspective. They show lack of awareness or lack of automatic control over an isolated social convention. We can say “hey, students should know this,” but I think this is frequently taken too far. We can’t assume that students were never taught these social conventions (they may have forgotten this particular thing as they have so many other things they once learned in school). In addition, there’s no systematically collected evidence to suggest that young people really have become less able to control written conventions like these than previous generations were (despite the insistence of grammar snobs that this is the case; indeed this feeds into a pervasive myth about how young people are becoming ever more incompetent). Most importantly, we shouldn’t over-interpret the significance of such spelling errors or elevate these particular social conventions to a level where we lose sight of all of the other strengths that a writer can still have despite some minor spelling problems (that can be easily edited out). To put it another way, although spelling is on some level part of writing, we shouldn’t conflate adherence to conventions of spelling with good ideas or good writing.

  5. […] idea that people’s language is legitimate in its own right regardless of whether it conforms to elitists’ arbitrary prescriptions about what it should be. Historically, sociolinguists have taken incredibly unpopular stances, such […]

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