The Grammar Gestapo

Written 1982 by Steven Lewis

Many of us have a linguistic inferiority complex whose roots go back to grade school where we were told, for example, that to say "ain't" was akin to falling in a bucket of paint.

We fear speaking before some 'learned' types who might classify us as illiterates should we split an infinitive or commit some other verbal indiscretion. Most of us have been embarrassed at least once as a result of our linguistic innocence. I still recall the snickers at a fellow high school student when he read "hors d'oeuvres" as if it were marinated prostitute.

Much more annoying than these occasional critics are those self-appointed guardians of the language whose preoccupation seems to be "correcting" other people's talk. I used to be a part of this linguistic snobbery, and would berate my hard-working mom for doing the worsh instead of the wash.

Today, thanks in part to General Semantics, I am more tolerant, for I realize the primary function of language is to evoke the communicator's meanings inside the intended audience. If someone asks you for a cigarette, replying "I ain't got none" should get the point across as readily as "I haven't any."

Perhaps we need a Society for the Prevention of Linguistic Pedantry to provide us some defense against people who 'know the rules' but have little grasp of their situational significance.

Our society could be based on the following premises:

(1) The dictionary was not Heaven-sent, but is a man-made instrument that records how people most frequently use words, not how they should use them.

(2) The meanings of words are inside people, not in the words themselves. There is no such thing as the "true" meaning of a word.

(3) The test of a person's competence as a communicator is how well s/he elicits the intended meanings in the intended receiver.

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