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.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


5 Thoughts on "The Power Imbalances of Language Policing"

“There is no correct language. It grows and evolves.”

The second part of that statement is undoubtedly true. I have a major beef with the first part, however. Of course language grows and evolves, but to say there’s no correct language is nonsense on stilts. All languages have structural rules — tense, subject/verb agreement, punctuation, etc. Without them, we’d all be speaking and writing gibberish.

There’s no need to mock anyone or make them feel bad for poor grammar. If you don’t know the person making a language error, then it’s rude and jerky to point it out. But teachers should correct the errors of their students, and parents should correct their children’s language errors, as I’ve done with mine since they were toddlers.

To be fair, for brevity’s sake I did leave out this part of Hodgman’s thread:
“I’m all for teaching some basic norms so we can all understand ourselves.”

And to avoid controversy I left out this part:
“By the way, none of this is meant to poop on the ENJOYMENT of language. Even of grammar. Usage. History of same. Etymology. Slang. History of slang. It’s all a wonderful, interesting, MEANINGFUL puzzle. Unlike the Spelling Bee, which is pointless. COME AT ME SPELLING BEEISTS”

For the sake of inclusion there should not be any “language policing”, yet I can no longer say black-box, scrum master, or sanity check. Why is that?

I think perhaps you’ve missed the point of this post (and of Hodgman’s musings). The idea behind the post (and Hodgman’s statement) is a philosophy of kindness. Be kind to other people, particularly when it’s easy to avoid unnecessarily being unkind. Having to change long held habits and being conscious of the effect one has on others requires some effort, and there are many who would rather impose their will on others instead of doing that work themselves. For the unkind and intellectually lazy, there is little advice we can offer that will make a difference. But for those unintentionally being unkind, reminders that others have had different life experiences and face different struggles than oneself can be useful for driving self-improvement. In short, the lesson should not be “there should not be any language policing”, rather, it is “always choose kindness.”

I grappled with this issue after a conversation with two researchers who argued that we shouldn’t be trying to enforce standard grammar conventions. Regardless, I think it is less about the corrections themselves and more about how they are made (hint: the less snark the better).

Further thoughts on how to handle linguistic discrimination in academic publishing:

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