As a fledgling nerd in my teens and early twenties, grammar pedantry was an important part of geek identity for me. At the time, I thought that being a geek had a lot to do with knowing facts and rules, and with making sure that other people knew you knew those facts and rules. I thought that people wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other clearly without rigid adherence to grammatical rules, a thought that may have been influenced by the predominance of text-based, online communication in my social life at the time.
The image shames people for where they place commas and suggests sarcastically that a punctuation error could result in misunderstanding of a suggestion to have a meal as a suggestion to practice cannibalism.
If Facebook had existed at the time, I would have been sharing this image, and others like it, with the best of them. I was sure that correct use of punctuation and adherence to the grammatical rules of standard American English was an essential step along the way to achieving truth, justice, and the American Way. Though I wasn’t sure exactly how. It definitely seemed a lot easier to teach people how to use commas correctly than to teach them how to take another’s point of view (something I wasn’t very good at myself at the time), and like the drunk looking for their keys underneath the lamppost because that’s where it’s easier to see, I ran with it.
Nerds, Rules, and Race
A few years ago, Graydon Hoare mentioned Mary Bucholtz’s article “The Whiteness of Nerds” (PDF link) to me. As a recovering grad student, I don’t read a lot of scholarly articles anymore, but this one has stayed with me. Perhaps that’s because the first time I read it, felt embarrassed. I felt that I had been read. By this point, I suppose I had let go of some of my attachment to grammar pedantry, but I still felt that it was just a bit of harmless fun. I realized that without being consciously aware of it, I had been using devotion to formal rules as a way to perform my whiteness — something that I would certainly have denied I was doing had someone accused me of such.
Bucholtz argues, in short, that geek culture (among American youths) is a subculture defined, essentially, by being whiter than white:
“This identity, the nerd, is racially marked precisely because individuals refuse to engage in cultural practices that originate across racialized lines and instead construct their identities by cleaving closely to the symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness, especially the resources of language.”
Bucholtz is not saying that there are no nerds of color — just that nerd culture, among the teenagers she studied, was defined by hyper-devotion to a certain set of white cultural norms (which some youths of color are perfectly happy to adopt, just as some white youths perform an identification with hip-hop culture).
If we accept her analysis of nerd culture, though, it’s clear that it excludes some people more than others. Adopting hyper-whiteness is an easier sell for people who are already white than for people who are potentially shrugging off their family of origin’s culture in order to do so. If it’s assumed that a young person has to perform the cultural markers of nerd culture in order to be accepted as someone who belongs in a science class or in a hackerspace, then it’s harder for youths of color to feel that they belong in those spaces than it is for white youths. That’s true even though obsessing about grammar has little to do with, say, building robots.
In my own youth, I would have said that I liked nitpicking about grammar because it was fun, probably, and because I wanted to communicate “correctly” (perhaps the word I would have used then) so that I could be understood. But was I harping over it for the intrinsic pleasure of it, or because it was a way for me to feel better than other people?
I think people who have been bullied and abused tend to use rules in the hopes that rules will save them. It’s true that many kids who are academically gifted and/or interested in science, math and engineering experience bullying and even abuse, even those who are otherwise (racially, gender-wise, and economically) privileged. It’s also true that some of the same people grow up to abuse their power over others in major ways, as most of the previous posts on this blog show. As a child, I thought that someday, someone was going to show up and stop my mother from abusing me and that that would be made possible by the fact that it was against the rules to hit children. I think that’s part of how I got so interested in formal systems of rules like grammar — eventually leading me to pursue programming language theory as a field of study, which is about using formal systems of rules to make computers do things. I suspect many nerds had a similar experience to mine.
But it’s easier to like formal systems of rules when those rules usually protect you. If you live in a country where the laws were made by people like you, and are usually enforced in ways that protect you, it’s easier to be enamored of technical adherence to the law. And, by analogy, to prescriptive sets of rules like “standard English” grammar. It’s also easier to feel affection for systems of rules when people like yourself usually get a say in constructing them.
Not all nerds are abuse survivors, so perhaps other nerds (as adults) value rule-following because they believe that their aptitude for compliance to formal systems of rules is the key to their economic success. From there, it’s easy to jump to victim-blaming: the line of thought that goes, “If other people would just learn and follow the rules, they would be successful too.”
“Mrs. Smith is a wonderful linguist. Give her a few hours with a grammar and she’ll know everything except the pronunciation.” — Graham Greene, The Comedians
In Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, set in Haiti in the 1950s, Mrs. Smith — an American who is in the country to proselytize for vegetarianism (not realizing that in the country she’s visiting, nobody can afford to eat meat) — believes that all she needs to do to speak the language of the natives, wherever she’s going, is to memorize the language’s grammatical rules. Not only does she not (apparently) realize the difference between Haitian Creole and Parisian French, she doesn’t seem to know (or doesn’t care) about idioms, slang, or culture. If she really is a wonderful linguist, perhaps she has a native ability to pick up on connotations, which she’s discounting due to her belief that adherence to rules is what makes her successful.
In general, it’s possible that some grammar pedantry is motivated by a sincere belief that if others just learned how to speak and write standard English, they’d be able to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps. But success doesn’t automatically grant insight into the reasons for your success. Maybe understanding rules is secondary to a more holistic sort of talent. Maybe you’re ignoring white privilege, class privilege, and other unearned advantages as reasons for your success, and others won’t enjoy the same outcome just by learning to be good at grammar.
Maybe it’s especially tempting for programmers to play the prescriptivist-grammar game. By nature, programming languages are prescriptive: for programs to make sense at all, a language has to have a formal grammar, a formal mathematical description of what strings of characters are acceptable programs. If there was a formal grammar for English, it would say, for example, that “The cat sat on the mat.” is a valid sentence, and “Mat cat on the sat.” is not. But there isn’t one; English is defined by what its speakers find acceptable, just as every other human language is. Different speakers may disagree on what sentences are acceptable, so linguists can outline many different dialects of English — all of which are mutually understandable, but which have different grammatical rules. There is no correct dialect of English, any more than any given breed of dog is the correct dog.
Programming consists largely of making details explicit — because you’re talking to a not-very-bright computer — that most other humans would be able to fill in from context. Context is why most of the grammar memes that people share are very shallow: no English speaker would actually sincerely confuse “Let’s eat Grandma!” with “Let’s eat, Grandma”, because of contextual knowledge: mostly the contextual knowledge that humans don’t treat each other as food and so the first sentence is very unlikely to be intended, but also the contextual knowledge that we’re talking to Grandma and have been talking about preparing dinner (or, I suppose, the knowledge that we have survived a plane crash and are stranded with no other food sources). If punctuation really was a life-and-death matter any appreciable portion of the time, the human race would be in deep trouble — on the whole, we’re much better at spoken language, and written language is a relatively recent and rare development.
But I think programmers have a good reason to value breaking rules, because that’s what programmers do whenever they are being truly creative or innovative (sometimes known as “disruption”). Hacking — both the kind sometimes known as “cracking” and the legal kind — are about breaking rules. In spoken language, grammatical rules are often (if not always) developed ex-post-facto. It’s probably more fun to study how people actually use language and discover how it always has internal structure than it is to harp on compliance with one particular set of rules for one particular dialect.
Bucholtz argues that nerds are considered “uncool” by virtue of being too white, surprisingly, since white people are the dominant cultural group in the region she was studying. She made that observation in 2001, though. Now, in 2014, “nerd” has come to mean “rich and high status” (at least if you’re male), much more than it means “unpopular and ignored”. We hear people talk about the revenge of the nerds, but are we really talking about the revenge of the hyper-white? Nerds often see themselves as rebelling against an oppressive mainstream culture; is it contradictory to resist oppression by defining oneself as “other” to the oppressor culture… by outdoing the oppressor at their own game?
Bucholtz addresses this question by arguing that while “cool” white youths walk a delicate balance between actng “too black” and “too white”, “nerdy” white youths resolve this tension by squarely aiming for “too white”. I don’t think she would say that the “cool” white kids are anti-racist, just that in defining themselves in opposition to the cool kids’ appropriation of Black American culture, nerds run the risk of behaving so as to devalue and stigmatize the culture being appropriated, intentionally or not.
Moreover, we know that cultural appropriation isn’t a respectful act; are the “hyper-white nerds” actually the anti-racist ones because they refrain from appropriating African-American culture? And does it matter whether we’re talking about youth culture (in which intellectualism can often go unappreciated) or adult culture (where intellectualism pays well)? I’d welcome any thoughts on these questions.
What am I really doing if I click “Share” on that “Let’s eat Grandma!” image? I’m marking myself as discerning and educated, and I don’t even have to spell out to anyone that by doing those things, I’m shoring up my whiteness — the culture already did the work for me of convincing everyone that if you’re formally educated, you must be white; that if you aren’t, you must be poor; and then if you’re a person of color and formally educated, you must want to be white. I’m also marking myself as someone who has enough spare time and emotional resources to care a lot about something that has no bearing on my survival.
Incidentally, I’m also marking myself as someone whose neurology does not make it unusually difficult to process written language. There are similar memes I can share that would also mark me as someone who is not visually impaired and thus does not use a screen reader that would make it impossible for me to spell-check text for correct use of homophones. An example of the latter would be a meme that makes fun of someone who writes “fare” instead of “fair”, when the only way to avoid making such a typographical error is to have the ability to see the screen. In “Why Grammar Snobbery Has No Place in the Movement”, Melissa A. Fabello explores these points and more as she argues that social justice advocates should reject grammar snobbery. I agree, and also think that geeks — regardless of whether they also identify as being in “the movement” — should do the same, as it’s ultimately counterproductive for us too.
Geek identity doesn’t have to mean pedantry, about grammar or even about more substantive matters. The Hacker School Rules call out a more general phenomenon: the “well-actually”. The rules define a “well-actually” as a correction motivated by “grandstanding, not truth-seeking”. Grammar pedantry is almost always in the former category: it would be truth-seeking if it was about asking what unclear language means, but it’s usually targeted at language whose meaning is quite clear. I think that what the Hacker School document calls “grandstanding” is often about power dynamics and about who is favored and disfavored under systems of rigid rules. But rules are to serve values, not the other way around; I think geekiness has the potential to be anti-racist if we use our systems of rules in the service of values like love and justice, rather than letting ourselves be used by those systems.
Thanks to Chung-Chieh Shan and Naomi Ceder, as well as Geek Feminism bloggers Mary and Shiny for their comments on drafts.