I’ve finished grading essays and spent the last couple of days evaluating my students speaking abilities, of which I do have some things I want to say. But before I write that piece, I want to write this one.
Before work today, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across this little ditty from a local TV network (local as in, Utah), KUTV:
The headline reads: “Florida transportation officials are dealing with an extremely embarrassing mistake. This sign was about to go up before a worker discovered the error” (italics mine).
Maybe it’s just because it is early in the morning, but I was annoyed that they would choose to describe a simple, simple typo as an “extremely embarrassing mistake”. But then I went to the comment section:
“When you hire people who don’t speak english, this is what you get.”
“Ah no problem the tax payers will pay the mexicans to make it again”
“What happens when you outsource to China?”
“engrish only please”
And so on… Not all the comments were racist, nor were they all offensive. Some simply said, “funny!” (which could be true). Some called other people out on their racism, not all hope is lost.
In thinking about the sign, the news story and the public reaction (in Utah), I started thinking about what it means to spell correctly in our society, and in the English-speaking world. English spelling is notoriously difficult (but even that criticism is overblown). Not all languages and cultures have a thing called a Spelling Bee. But in America, the contest over best speller is broadcast over ESPN (which is awesome). We put a bit of emphasis and pride on our ability to spell correctly.
But I also started thinking about the racism involved. Have you noticed who we don’t expect to spell very well? Mexicans, The Chinese, anyone who learns English as a second language. Certainly anyone in the process of learning a second language will have difficulties with spelling and speaking, but at a certain point, errors in spelling become one of category and not one of degree. Lesly Wade-Woolley and Linda S. Siegel discovered that second-language speakers of English make different not more spelling errors than native speakers. And this makes sense. ESL speakers rely on many different techniques to learn the language, one of which is using writing to help learn words and grammar. Native speakers learn the language orally and then learn how to write. This helps explain why native speakers of English often have such a hard time with There, Their and They’re, or two, too, and to.
Ok, sure, we’ll buy this idea. Nobody really has to argue very hard against racism. But I think there is something else that is at work here that is wholly intra-native-speaker. While racism explains the comments of some of the viewers, another question might be, why is this news-worthy at all? It is foolish to simply dismiss it as, “well, it’s not!” Many people commented on the news bit, there is obviously a market for pointing out grammatical/spelling errors. It is news.
One explanation (that I like) has to do with the role of the Grammarian in our society. No one thinks about the local language-authority as anyone particularly special, but I have in the past described them as cultural heroes. The people who set forth the rules and edicts of the proper use of any language. We spend much of our education learning the proper syntax, spelling and word choice to use in our language. Which seems very odd, since we were essentially fluent in our language by the age of 3 or 4. And yet we spend years and years afterwards perfecting what are often completely made-up rules about language. Don’t strand prepositions, don’t split infinitives, don’t use “hopefully” to describe an uncertainty and so on.
I personally like the explanation put forth via Veblan Economics of the Leisure class. I’m but a novice-amateur in the field of Economics and its history, but it provides a framework that is helpful, I think. Essentially, what Veblan puts forth is that we are driven via biological, evolutionary principles towards “conspicuous consumption”. It is desirable to have things, and even more so to have things that you can waste. This is the difference between Lord and Serf, and in our modern times, our conspicuous consumption is often things having to do with time.
How much time do you spend on vacation versus working? How much golf do you play? How many days did you spend out of the office? These things signal your ability to consume, rather than produce. Clothing is similar. The business-suit is desirable, in part, because it is wholly unsuitable for manual labor. It shows the wearer to be above the tasks of the working class.
And in this line of thinking, knowing proper grammar and how to spell correctly are evidences that you have spent years educating yourself in those tasks. Notice, knowing how to spell correctly and use prescriptive grammar are not productive. They don’t produce anything. Being able to point out the mistakes of others is not actually about grammar. It is about signaling your ability to consume. You had the privilege to spend your time learning non-productive pursuits instead of productive ones.
To be clear here, I am using “productive” here in a very literal sense, not the connotative sense of “hard-worker”. Grammar-nazis can be very productive in what they do, but they aren’t actually producing anything.
And so we point out when someone makes a spelling mistake, but we don’t just point it out, we describe the event as, “extremely embarrassing” as if misplacing an “I” were somehow similar to pissing yourself in public.
— Of course, in writing this little ditty, it could be argued that I am engaging in the very act that I am describing. I am demonstrating my knowledge (presumed knowledge, until someone stumbles across this blog and shows my ignorance, an event I am sure KUTV would describe as “extremely embarrassing”) of Veblen Economics, of Grammar, and Spelling. As XKCD said it: