Grammar Matters book review

Grammar Matters: The social significance of how we use language
Jila Ghomeshi
Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2010

A more incendiary writer – or a more sensationalist publisher – might have titled this book Grammar Gurus Are Bigots. But Jila Ghomeshi is not an attack dog; she is a moderate-toned professor of linguistics.

Nonetheless, her main theme is clear: abhorrence of non-standard grammar is a form of prejudice with no basis in reason, experience, or fact – no more intelligent than racial bigotry, but somehow presented as a sign of superior intelligence rather than as the expression of tribalism, intolerance, privilege, and hierarchy that it is.

Ghomeshi lays out some straightforward facts about what things in language matter to people, why they matter, and how they really work. Then she gets into the really good part. There are three fallacies, she explains, that prescriptivists use in touting the superiority of “proper” English: logic, precision, and authority. With clear examples and reasoning, she shows that “proper” English is not more logical than various “non-standard” varieties – in fact, it’s not especially logical or consistent at all; that English can be stunningly imprecise and even contradictory in its variations, idioms, and economies; and that we managed to get along quite well with language for about 100 times as long as we have had prescriptive grammars, which anyway were written by self-appointed “authorities” who were really inexpert dilettantes serving social climbers.

So is Ghomeshi waging war against standards? Does she think everything is relative, and we can just chuck standards out the window? Of course not. She has her brain fully in gear. She recognizes the value of having a standard version of a language: it maintains a common reference version of the language to facilitate communication. The point, as she says, is that “it is good to have a standard, but the standard is not ‘good’” – that is, it is not inherently superior. “Non-standard” varieties have their value, and “recognizing and celebrating a non-standard dialect is of no threat to the existence of a standard if speakers know and use both appropriately.”

For Ghomeshi, then, standards don’t go out the window, bigotry about them does – so that we can enjoy “a far greater range of expression than the narrow channel we think of as ‘correct.’” And of course I agree.

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One response to “Grammar Matters book review

  1. Originally written for Active Voice, the magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada.

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