When It Comes to Grammar, Don’t Split Hairs or Infinitives
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
I’ve spent over three years of my Kenyon career working as the managing editor of the Collegian. Nearly every week since the second semester of my first year, I’ve hunched over the same round table in the corner of our Peirce office, squinted at pages and pages of double-spaced text and ferreted out missing apostrophes, passive voice and misplaced modifiers. With that in mind, know that I mean it when I say this: Kenyon, grammar doesn’t matter even a quarter as much as half of you think it does.
Here in Gambier, we’re enamored of the image of Kenyon as a school for writers. I know I wrote at least one of the essays that gained me admission on that subject. In high school, I was that girl who proofread her classmates’ papers and refused to respond to text messages without capitalization. At Kenyon, I’ve devoted all of my extracurricular time to the same pursuit, and I’m heading off into the real world hoping to do the same thing there.
With so many pedantic English majors gathered into one place, however, we tend to cling to these rules of grammar not to facilitate communication but to prove our own superiority. I know I’ve done it. There’s something really satisfying about finding a mistake in the Alumni Bulletin or the course catalogue, after all. It’s even more fun to laugh at the incoherence that sometimes pops up on the all-student email forum.
Stop that, guys. When you refuse to consider the validity of someone’s argument solely because of the way it’s phrased, you’re subscribing to prescriptivist linguistics. If you know anything about linguistics, you know that, historically, prescriptivism not only tries to mandate usage of grammar and spelling, but also polices which usages of language are socially or politically permissible. Those in power are, of course, the ones who create these standards. How many times have you heard someone dismiss African-American Vernacular English, instead of accepting it as a legitimate dialect of American English?
The average classroom environment here encourages constant discussion and the inclusion of as many voices as possible. That’s useful when you’re discussing dynamics of class in Jane Eyre, but it can go too far. You don’t always need to be saying something and sometimes it’s better to listen to someone else’s experience than it is to talk about yours.
Those of us who work long hours on the Collegian do so because we want to make information easily accessible to residents of Gambier, whether they are Kenyon students or not and regardless of their backgrounds. I copy-edited the paper for as long as I did not to maintain grammar for its own sake, but to ensure that each article conveyed its meaning with precision and could reach the widest audience possible.
We like to talk a lot about diversity here at Kenyon, but relatively privileged students like me and a good portion of the student body are reluctant to sit back, shut up and just listen. Fixation with grammar as a barometer of intelligence only heightens the collegiate tendency to stifle marginalized voices. I’ll say it again: grammar doesn’t matter. What’s important is genuine commitment to hearing from everyone who needs the chance to speak. Kenyon could definitely use more of that.