Earlier this month I was defending myself to a new acquaintance, as I often do when I come out of my abstract shell and speak in more absolutes. Inevitably, when I admit that I study English language, literature, and linguistics, I have to combat the stereotypes of both hyperliteracy and radical judgementalism. Ironically, I find myself more under attack by people who ask me to act as the language authority of their prescriptive questions; the divorce attorney of people who speak ‘well’ and those who speak ‘good[ly].’ I realized, first and foremost, that a lot of people who care to make distinctions don’t care enough to accept the liberal linguistic attitudes that I often observe in descriptivism.
In the name of pedantry, I was often graded down in a class last semester for my use of independent clauses in the name of dangling modifiers. An early example that always sticks with me is the literate deer:Driving to school the other day, a deer ran into my car.
Well, I can see how deer that drive to school might frighten my professor, but my justified independents were pre-posed perfectly. This pedantry, which functions well to develop early language literacy, colors my passions–outside the lines that I provide–with unnecessary red pen marks. I doubt that the common person, let alone a college scholar, is ever exposed to the explanation of these grammar rules. So when I tell people that I am studying a language that they will have to produce after I finish speaking, it doesn’t surprise me that they look at me like they haven’t read the book we’re discussing.
But this is unfair to me. I didn’t become a scholar to salt the wounds of red ink, but rather to crush the pen with justified knowledge. I don’t study English to destroy papers, but rather to write them. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my undergraduate career, it’s that language is just another construction of society. If someone wants to talk about what they seen the other day, I won’t encourage their paper writing, but I’m not going to tell them I’ll be praying for them either.
Language is an instrument, and I have a degree in carpentry. But as long as you don’t point nails, I won’t hammer them back into you (because I still smash my thumb all the time).