The Cosplay Feminist

March 2012 archive

Busy monster

Guys, I have been eaten by the busy monster. I have so many writing projects to complete, which is awesome (!), but also time-consuming. I’m going to take a break from feeling guilty about not blogging, but I promise to be back in a couple weeks.

Why I’m not proud of Sherlock for correcting other people’s grammar

The title of this post is inspired by Ladysquires excellent “Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar.”

The opening scene of the Sherlock episode “The Great Game” is one of the many reasons I think Sherlock is an asshole. In it, he ruthlessly “corrects” a suspected murderer’s grammar, for reasons unknown. Some have suggested he’s just a prescriptivist, and other argue he may have been trying to get the man angry. Whatever the reason, this scene illustrates neatly why I hate grammar prescriptivism:

(A transcript and description of the video is available at the bottom of the post.)

A little linguistics 101: A dialect is a pattern of speech used by a community. Frequently, dialects are centered around a geographical region (an East Texas dialect, an Appalachian dialect), or cultural and ethnic similarities (African American Vernacular English or Ebonics, Chican@ English). Some dialects are completely spoken, some are completely written, and some include both speech and writing. Dialects can differ in mechanics (how sentences are formed), in spelling, in pronunciation, in rhythm (how much overlap is permitted or how much pause is required in conversation, how emphasis is distributed in sentences, etc.), and in vocabulary. Some people speak and write more than one dialect.

By the time we went to school, we were already pretty competent in our nurture dialects (that is, the dialect that you grew up with, which is often your parents’ dialect). From “Students’ Right to Their Own Language”:

Before going to school, children possess basic competence in their dialects. For example, children of six know how to manipulate the rules for forming plurals in their dialects. In some dialects children add an “s” to the word to be pluralized as in “book/books.” In some other dialects, plurality is signaled by the use of the preceding word as in “one book/ two book.” But in either instance children have mastered the forms of plurality and have learned a principle of linguistic competence. It is important to remember that plurality signals for the nurture dialect reflect children’s reality and will be their first choice in performance; plurality rules for another dialect may simply represent to them the rituals of someone else’s linguistic reality.

In a specific setting, because of historical and other factors, certain dialects may be endowed with more prestige than others. Such dialects are sometimes called “standard” or “consensus” dialects. These designations of prestige are not inherent in the dialect itself, but are externally imposed, and the prestige of a dialect shifts as the power relationships of the speakers shift.

Some dialects get prestige. You all are probably familiar with what is often called Standard American English, but what I’ll call Edited American English (EAE). EAE is what you are often talk in public schools as “correct” English. This is the English of the educated. We often think EAE is simply “right.” Every dialect that varies from EAE is “wrong,” “incorrect” English. This perception is absolutely wrong. There is nothing grammatically pure, logical, or superior about EAE. Other dialects, including the much-derided Ebonics, are all rule-governed and regular, just like EAE. They just have different rules.

The reason we value EAE, that it has prestige, is that the people whose nurture dialects are closest to EAE are people of privilege: White, upper- or upper-middle class, and generally living in the Northeast of the U.S.

Which dialect we choose as the prestige dialect of English has always been based on the privilege of the speakers. When rich White Elizabethans used double negatives, double negatives were considered “correct” English. Shakespeare used double negatives often. Now, however, the dialects that use double negatives are mostly spoken by poor people and people of color. So now, double negatives are “incorrect.” This is not coincidence: our culture’s grammar rules are determined entirely by what kind of people speak that way. If those people are privileged, that dialect is a sign of intelligence. If those people are not privileged, that dialect is a sign of ignorance and stupidity.

A page from a book of Yorkshire dialect verse. Photo by Flickr user teachernz and shared under a Creative Commons license.

So when Sherlock “corrects” this man’s grammar, he is displaying a particularly egregious practice of classism. He does what he can to make this man feel as though he is not intelligent, as if he can’t speak his own language properly.

But what breaks my heart about this clip is the result of this “correcting”: The man is basically silenced. He doesn’t feel comfortable speaking in his own language anymore. Toward the end, when he is “correcting” himself, his sentences are shorter, less fluent, and filled with more pauses than they were at the beginning of the scene. He can’t communicate as easily as he did before the “corrections.”

Okay, yes, this guy murdered his wife. I don’t actually feel sorry for him. But I’ve seen this in action. I’ve met many people who think they don’t speak English correctly. Whose English teachers have taught them that they must stumble and stutter in class, or just shut up entirely, because they don’t know how to speak. Who don’t think they can write anything, because no one would understand it.

And they think that because they are poor and live in Texas, since Texas dialects are shorthand for “stupid” in popular culture, and that isn’t any different in Texas. Or they think that because they’re Black and speak African American Vernacular English. They think that because people have told them that. People, like Sherlock, have “corrected” them, called them stupid, or claimed to be unable to understand them.

So they stutter. They pause. They feel unsure of their words. They stop communicating. That’s a profoundly disempowering thing, feeling like you can’t communicate. And that’s what happens when you “correct” dialectical differences. So congratulations, Sherlock, on being a pompous, classist asshole.


[A clip from the beginning of episode 3, series 1 of Sherlock, “The Great Game.” The video opens with a black screen and a variation of the Sherlock theme music. White text appears at the bottom of the screen reading “Minsk, Belarus.” The text disappears and the shot pans around a wall into a large, mostly-empty prison visiting room. Sherlock and an inmate in orange prison garb sit across from each other at one of the tables.]

Sherlock: Just tell me what happened from the beginning.

Inmate: We had been to a bar, a nice place, and I got chattin’ with one of the waitresses, and Karen weren’t happy with that, so…we get back to the hotel, we end up having a bit of a ding-dong, don’t we?

Sherlock sighs loudly.

Inmate: She’s always getting at me, saying I weren’t a real man.

Sherlock: Wasn’t a real man.

Inmate: What?

Sherlock: It’s not weren’t, it’s wasn’t.

Inmate: Oh.

Sherlock, exasperated: Go on.

Inmate: Well… then I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly there’s a knife in my hands. And, you know, me old man was a butcher, so I know how to handle knives. He learned us how to cut up a beast—

Sherlock: Taught

Inmate: What?

Sherlock: Taught you how to cut up a beast.

Inmate: Yeah, well, then I done it.

Sherlock: Did it.

Inmate: Did it! STABBED her, over and over and over, and I looked down, and she weren’t—

Sherlock sighs and looks away.

Inmate:wasn’t…moving no more.

Sherlock rolls his eyes and looks away.

Inmate: Any more. God help me, I dunno how it happened, but it was an accident, I swear.

Sherlock stands and starts to walk away.

Inmate: Hey, you’ve got to help me, Mr Holmes! Everyone says you’re the best. Without you, I’ll get hung for this.

Sherlock: No, no, Mr. Bewick; not at all. Hanged, yes.

[Sherlock walks away as the theme music variation starts up again.]

Self-objectifying lady geeks: An update

Thank you, dear readers! Thanks to your generous donations (and a very generous birthday gift from my grandparents), I will be going to Boston in less than a month! I’ll be presenting a version of this blog post, and I’m very excited to hear the feedback from other scholars.

I can’t thank you guys enough. Here is my birthday gift to you, an adorable sea otter.

otterGo look at this otter cleaning his paw!