When people find out that I studied English in school and teach English at college, they often assume I’m some sort of grammar police. At which point, the conversation goes one of two ways: if they are themselves grammar police, they go on rants about prepositions in the wrong place, who vs. whom, good vs. well, and so on; if they are the offenders (labeled as such by the first type), they get self-conscious about their own “bad grammar,” often shutting down the conversation a bit.
I’m actually much more bothered by the first type–I find it hard to understand why people get so self-righteous about grammar, almost as if good grammar equates with good character. For my own part, the more I learn about language, the less I care to try to police it. For one thing, there’s no such thing as “correct English”–English officially has no governing body to set down its rules. So out of the many hundreds or thousands of English dialects, there’s really no way to say which one is right. In fact, the dialect we call “Standard English” is hardly actually spoken by anyone (even the grammar police), and only became the standard because it was the dialect of the elites. Other dialects were looked down on not because they were deviations from the “one true English,” but because the people who used them were looked down on. (For a fascinating example using ask vs aks/ax, click here).
For me, the question is more one of purpose than correctness. There are certainly times when using Standard English is more appropriate, and I do teach it to my students; but most of the time when people are having a conversation, the purpose is simply to communicate and build relationships, and a misplaced modifier or using less instead of fewer almost never gets in the way of that. In those times, attacking someone else’s grammar can only serve to make one person feel superior and the other feel self-conscious, inadequate, or defensive–and the result is often to stifle the communication that’s the real purpose anyway.
I find a strong parallel here with religion–people have a tendency to be “belief police,” making sure people have the correct beliefs. But there are innumerable dialects of God, and who’s to say what the “right” ones are? When we shut out those other ways of speaking God, when we assume our way is the right way, we risk being contentious or exclusionary, making ourselves feel superior but making others feel unaccepted or defensive. When we put belief before belonging, we shut down the conversation before it begins and miss out on the real purpose of creating relationships and community. Just like with grammar, there may be times when it’s important to address someone’s belief, but only after those relationships have been built, and not to make sure it’s “correct” so much as to make sure it’s in harmony with God’s purposes.
In college writing classes, we don’t teach “correct” language anymore–we teach students to use a variety of styles and dialects to match whatever purpose they have for writing. I think we could benefit from the same approach in our church lives.
Let’s learn to hear, speak, and celebrate the many dialects of God and learn to use them to build community amidst God’s beautifully diverse creation.
Photo from this site.