I’ve been an avid listener to the Judge John Hodgman podcast for more than a decade. On the show, author, former literary agent, and minor television personality John Hodgman holds court — literally — as he works with guests to resolve their disputes. Hodgman also writes a column along similar lines for The New York Times. The show is smart, funny, and always deeply humane. Hodgman’s thoughtfulness and kindness shine through.
Which is why I had to stop and do some self-reflection after recent episodes where he delved into “language policing”, or correcting the grammar of others. As a former copyeditor and long-time language enthusiast, I’ve always taken some level of joy in understanding the “right” use of words or phrases.
But Hodgman makes a compelling argument that this is “an expression of status anxiety” and results in enforcing unfair power imbalances. Excerpted from a Twitter thread from last year:
Prescriptivist grammar/usage is a system of order, designed to exclude “wrong” language, which tends to equate with “wrong” people. Out groups who were often purposefully denied access to the “correct” language on purpose. Because that’s the language law and power is written in…BIPOC and LGTBQ+ folks IN PARTICULAR have enriched English vastly. Mostly because they are all thinking/feeling/smart/imaginative whole human beings. But ALSO because they found ways to speak to each other when purposefully excluded from the “correct” language of power…But next time you, dear reader, decide to raise your snoot at someone else’s grammar/usage/expression, stop to remember: There is no correct language. It grows and changes. It is how humans meet other humans and take shelter together from suffering and loneliness. Why police it? Why mock it? When there is always a good choice, …to let people be and just say nothing?
I’ve tried to take that advice to heart (and at times, even allow myself to end a sentence with a preposition).
The video below has been making the rounds this week, taken from the Walliams & Friend television show. It’s funny, and makes the point about how much everyone enjoys a language pedant. Don’t be that guy.
The last laugh. pic.twitter.com/oEXDBt4ucv
— Kathy Lette (@KathyLette) June 24, 2023