In Defence of Bad Language.

This is the internet, a concept with which you are likely familiar. Probably just as familiar to you will be the concept of commenting. And, if you are a particularly feeble example of humankind, you are even more familiar with the idea of commenting to correct grammar and/or spelling.

Of all the breeds of Internet Pedant, you are the very worst. The word/statement/phrase you’re correcting clearly made adequate sense, or you would not have been able to grasp the concept clearly enough to do so. The ideas were communicated clearly enough for you to worry about a small smudge on their otherwise shining surface.

By Balleyne on Flickr

By Balleyne on Flickr

In your flailing efforts to eradicate the smudge, you obscure a very important fact; that you can even see the post is a miracle. The author could live thousands of miles away from you, you are communicating ACROSS THE PLANET, to DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, INSTANTANEOUSLY and the one thing, the ONLY thing, the most important thing that leaps from your tiny mind is: “Oh, they’ve spelt that wrong. Idiot.” (‘Spelt’ is right, before you start.)

This particular brand of cuntery is especially rife on twitter. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t see an informative or funny tweet from say, @SimonPegg or @SarahMillican or anybody else with a large following, that isn’t immediately followed by “Yes, I know I typo’d. You can stop telling me,” about twenty minutes later. These are intelligent, funny, successful people and yet the most interesting thing people can manage? “You made an insignificant mistake. I noticed it…(P.S. LOVE ME!)”

And that insecurity, I think, is the basis of the pandemic. The internet, no matter how hard it tries, will never ever be high brow. Never. Nor should it aspire to be. Its lack of any sort of brow is the beautiful thing about it. Everybody can access it, everybody can contribute. However, the sort of person that automatically assumes that high brow and intelligent are the same thing worries about the height of the internets brow. They sit and they think “Gosh, this life changing thing. It’s full of slightly-not-perfect, quickly typed un-proofread INFORMATION. FOR FREE. What if people think I’m less than intelligent if I don’t correct all of it?”

This type of insecurity is not entirely unfounded (though it is entirely stupid). Some people do judge others on their grammar and spelling, but only if they’re so invested in this shibboleth that they think it’s actually a test of intelligence. They think their superior spelling actually makes them objectively better rather than a product of very fortunate circumstances.

Let me tell you a story about the Ephraimites and the Gileadites. Once upon a time, (in the Book of Judges, Chapter 12) the Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites in battle. The Gileadites knew that the Ephraimites didn’t have the ‘sh’ phoneme in their language, and so were unable to pronounce a common word, shibboleth, in the Gileadite way. When the Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan back into their own territory, the Gileadites stopped them, and forced them to prove their Gileaditeyness by saying ‘shibboleth’. When they couldn’t, they killed them. Why bother to kill more Ephraimites? The same reason you’d correct a minor mistake in grammar or spelling on the internet. Because you’re a dick-head, mostly. You Gileadite monster.

Rather than see the beautiful potential for global bonding the internet holds, you see its looser boundaries of nation and language to be a threat to your fixed position of superiority. We must create new boundaries, you say. There shall be the Great Nation of Pedants, and the Great Nation of People with Better Things to Worry About. And long shall they be at war.

Art of Writting By jma.work on flickr

By jma.work on flickr

The internet is as close to truly free communication as we’re ever likely to get. If you don’t want to talk to people from all walks of life, don’t bother taking part. Not everybody went to school, not everybody got a good education. Even if they did, not everybody enjoyed or understood English as well as you might have, some people didn’t even speak English at school. You have this opportunity, this rain of information and experience to scoop up by the bucketful and all you can manage in response to this awe inspiring spectacle is the internet equivalent of the red squiggly line. Microsoft word does that, and it’s annoying. Useful if you’re writing an assignment or a job application, but otherwise just officious, unnecessary and insufferably smug.

The English language is a dirty dirty fuckabout. It picks up stuff left, right and centre, has survived the rise and fall of an empire, the merging of dozens of tribes, the creation of the redsquigglyline standardised version, French and Norse additions, the dictionary…It’s a tough old thing. It’s unlikely to crumble because some people on the internet are doing it a bit wrong.

What you are engaging in, oh you of the passive aggressive *, is language prescriptivism. It’s ugly and limited and quite a lot snobbish. It does not prove, as you may like to argue, that you have standards (though they are an unfortunate side effect). What it proves is that you have a thirst to show that you done good at school. This makes you very fortunate, extraordinarily so. But there no need to be a dick about it.

About Mell Moore

23, Journalist, Student, Gamer, Reader. I talk about the internet, games, books and idiots, in no particular order of preference. I try not to rant, but this is the internet and the WTFery here is of the highest standard, so please excuse me if it aggravates my tendency kick ignorance in the face. With words. Word-kicking. It's my thing. I have been featured in Friction Magazine and on Made2Game. I am a Deputy Editor and contributor at The Camel's Hump.


18 thoughts on “In Defence of Bad Language.

  1. Yeah, but people who say “should of” are quite annoying. amirite?

    I can even hear when people say “should of” instead of “should have”. Grrrr

    Posted by krisball | January 26, 2012, 10:57 pm
    • :p How DARE they…say something not correct. Going about their lives, saying things you don’t approve of. THE NERVE.

      Language is amazing! The fact we even have it at all, it seems a shame to put little bars around it and say “ok, anything else is wrong.”

      No, generally I’m not annoyed. I’m too much in love with the history of English to be at all bothered by what people do to it. We had a perfectly sensible way of spelling Queen before the French arrived </3

      Posted by Mell Moore | January 26, 2012, 11:11 pm
  2. Thank you for this! This sort of thing drives me crazy.

    Don’t quite agree with you on the prescriptivism thing – am more comfortable with Deb Cameron’s idea that descriptive/ prescriptive are both subsumed more helpfully under the idea of verbal hygiene or maintenance, and that it’s a practice which everyone carries out as a natural part of language use – and that much descriptive linguistic discourse itself becomes prescriptive (by proscribing prescription, gosh wahey I’ve tied meself up in this sentence!)

    But this sort of thing is certainly bad prescriptivism, and a flexing of (as you say) muscles which stood people in good stead at school, and which they kinda wish still got them points in the real world. I wonder if the policing of other people’s grammar is both an attempt to score points, and an attempt to keep the system of public “correct” grammar going for future point-scoring? I don’t deny that people are genuinely irritated by seeing incorrect grammar, punctuation, etc, but perhaps their irritation is grounded in fear at a glimpse of a world in which other people are understanding each other perfectly well despite these “errors” and in which they lose the automatic privilege which education affords?

    Not an original idea, I should admit – it’s partly ripped off one of Rowan Williams’ essays in which (if I’m remembering it rightly) he suggests that many of us feel uncomfortable around people with severe learning disabilities because in those situations we ourselves are “disabled” – the skills we pride ourselves on, of skilful communication, wide reading and clever references, are suddenly not at all useful. We feel challenged because our abilities are no longer valuable and may actually get in the wau. Or alternatively, this is all speculation, and I’m totally misreading you! Many thanks for the article, in any case.

    Posted by quiteirregular | January 27, 2012, 1:42 pm
    • I guess I mean prescriptive in the way they approach/study language. In opposition to descriptive, where you sort of relish language as a great thing no matter how its used, because the use in itself is fascinating and therefore can never be wrong. I much prefer that way of looking at things and what they tell you about the context they’re used in than a very narrow view of “I don’t care, that’s wrong.”

      There are natural grammar rules which everybody MUST follow, like word order and people prescribe to those because they affect meaning. Dog chased the ball means the complete opposite of ball chased the dog, for example. If people weren’t sticklers about those we’d all be lost. Arbitrary rules like un-split infinitives and the subjunctive are unnecessary both in terms of communication AND meaning, and only show people clinging onto an education where latinate rules of grammar are important.

      Posted by Mell Moore | January 27, 2012, 2:51 pm
      • Interesting point. Of course I agree that in a (largely) uninflected language like modern English subject-object-verb structure is just how we make meaning clear without noun cases. And completely agree that there is no point in trying to distinguish in a general sense between “language” and “language use” (tho we all do so on an individual basis, hence the distinction between “langue” and “parole”, if my misrembered linguistics isn’t letting me down…) But I don’t quite see your distinction between communication and meaning? Am prob being dense on this. And again, thanks for a very convincing article!

        Posted by quiteirregular | January 27, 2012, 2:59 pm
      • Uhm…*re-reads comment*, I can’t remember what I meant. Ignore that last part, the rest of my comment stands.

        Posted by Mell Moore | January 27, 2012, 3:35 pm
      • Whoop! Speaking of mistakes – I see I wrote subject-object-verb structure below for uninflected languages Of course I meant subject-verb-object. And S-O-V in more inflected languages.

        Posted by quiteirregular | January 27, 2012, 3:01 pm
      • Oh yes, split infinitives. I love to split infinitives. They can be so much more expressive.

        Posted by charlieedmunds | January 27, 2012, 3:02 pm
  3. “These are intelligent, funny, successful people and yet the most interesting thing people can manage?”

    To be fair, Simon Pegg is terribly dull on Twitter. Or he was a few months ago (I stopped following him).

    Posted by charlieedmunds | January 27, 2012, 2:24 pm
  4. The one thing that really annoys me is when people claim that a mistake is a typo.

    “Should of” (thanks for the example) is not a typo. It is just a mistake. You didn’t intend to write “should have”, your fingers didn’t turn that “have” into an “of”, nothing got confused between your brain and the computer keys. You just wrote it wrong. Maybe it’s not a big deal, but it’s not a typo.

    Posted by charlieedmunds | January 27, 2012, 2:31 pm
    • It’s an error in typing, of a sort I guess. People often type at thinking speed and despite knowing something is wrong, the brain might prefer to type how something sounds than how it’s said.

      There’d probably be less of that if people weren’t shamed about less than perfect spelling and grammar, though :p Owning your mistakes is fine when they aren’t something you’re judged on.

      Posted by Mell Moore | January 27, 2012, 2:53 pm
      • A typo is an error in typing. A misspelling or a wrong word is an error in thinking – the typing part (where you took the letters from your head and put them onto the screen via fingers and a keyboard) worked just fine.

        They are just different things. And yes I suppose people do defensively say “it’s a typo” because they don’t want to own up to having made a mistake.

        Posted by charlieedmunds | January 27, 2012, 3:04 pm
    • EXZACTLY! They shud of payed more atension in shcool

      Posted by krisball | January 28, 2012, 12:16 am
  5. Great post! I hate pendantry. As well as the brilliant points you mind, I think an important thing about the Internet, and social media in particular, is that it blurs the line between speech and text. People often write how they speak on forums, twitter etc. and speech isn’t perfectly formed. Also, such media move very quickly so prose isn’t as well thought out as it might have been traditionally.

    More important is the content of what people say. By all means pick them up on disablist, racist, mysoginistic language. The very ideas behind such language can be pernicious. But inappropriate use of an apostrophe? I’ve got more important things to care about.

    Posted by dillytante | January 28, 2012, 1:39 pm
    • That’s my point exactly, the internet is an almost exclusively informal/casual context. If we were talking about pedantry in marking essays or considering job applications, many of my points would still stand but standard English pedantry has its place in those contexts.

      Posted by Mell Moore | January 28, 2012, 1:49 pm
  6. Thank you Mell Moore! That’s a great post – I also learned a marvellous new word today, ‘cuntery’ – super! I shall try to use it daily from now on.

    Posted by Dave Whatt | February 1, 2012, 9:37 pm
  7. In a previous life I was an Ephraimite with a lisp – things were tough for me I tell ya x

    Posted by conmy | February 27, 2012, 1:13 pm

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