Ethics Dunce: Guardian Journalist Mona Chalabi

But Mona, doesn't you correcting people who correct people's grammar and calling them purveyors of white privilege make you an ANTI-grammar snob?

But Mona, doesn’t you correcting people who correct people’s grammar and calling them purveyors of white privilege make you an ANTI-grammar snob?

This won’t take long. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Mona Chalabi, a  journalist for the British tabloid “The Guardian,” has asserted that correcting someone’s grammar (and presumably word use, sentence structure and other aspects of effective communication) is racist.

“Grammar snobs are patronizing, pretentious, and just plain wrong, ” she says. “It doesn’t take much to see the power imbalance when it comes to grammar snobbery. The people pointing out he mistakes are more likely to be older, wealthier, whiter, or just plain academic than the people they’re treating with condescension. All too often, it’s a way to silence people, and that’s particularly offensive when it’s someone who might already be struggling to speak up.”

Of course, correcting anyone to humiliate them, embarrass them, or make them hesitant to speak is cruel and wrong, as would be slapping them in the face and shouting, “Shut up, fool!”  Neither of these, or other examples of bad manners and disrespectful treatment, is the conduct that Chalabi is condemning as a demonstration of white privilege, however. (Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, frequently quips, “White privilege—is there anything it can’t do?”) No, she is saying that the simple act of one human being pointing out to another that they have made a verbal mistake that may embarrass the speaker in the future makes the person offering the correction a “grammar snob,” and is unethical.

To the contrary, correcting anyone’s mistakes in speaking, when done with discretion and proper attention to the speaker’s feelings, is a gift, an act of social kindness and even a social obligation. Expressing oneself in a manner that causes others to conclude, possibly correctly, that you do not know correct meanings, grammar, construction and etiquette is a serious life handicap and an obstacle to success. A listener may conclude that you are badly educated, do not read, do not listen to those who speak to you correctly sufficiently to learn from them, are ignorant, are not very bright, or worse, know how to communicate but don’t have enough respect for the rest of the world to make an effort to do so. Unlike concluding such unflattering things about a stranger or casual acquaintance based on an accent or verbal regionalism, making judgments based on poor communication skills is not prejudice or bias. Communication is a vital life skill and occupational tool. Every individual has an obligation to master these as early as possible, certainly by young adulthood. Believing one has done this and being wrong is a dangerous and potentially tragic situation.

I would not hire a job applicant who used the word “ain’t,” or double negatives,  “irregardless,” or vulgarity, to name three of thousands of examples. If such an applicant had a prestigious degree from a university, I would assume that the degree was meaningless, and the institution had engaged in education malpractice. I would not trust a business whose initial contact with me was a clerk, a secretary or any employee who made a gross verbal or grammatical error, either. Why would I, if that business would hire employees who don’t know how to speak, which is highly correlated to know knowing how to think?

When others have corrected me in the past (or when readers of this blog flag one of my infuriatingly persistent typos), even though it is difficult not to feel a pang of shame, I regard it as I do when someone tells me that I have a piece of snot dangling out of my right nostril, that there is a big blob of spinach on my tooth or that my fly is down, as it was during a recent two hour seminar in front of 400 people and being videoed. I am grateful. The communication correction, however, is a cause for much more gratitude, because it not only prevents immediate social disadvantageous but future ones as well. Unless, that is, if the speaker ignores it, which will explain why they talk badly.

Someone should have told Debbie Wasserman Schultz that the word “misled” wasn’t pronounced “myzeld”  before she was head of the Democratic National Committee and the gaffe made her an object of ridicule. Somebody should have let President Obama know the the term “corps” is pronounced “core” before he inspired the contempt of many veterans. In college, I let a friend know that the animal was called a “hippopotamus” and not a “hippoponomus” as he had called the beast twice in a conversation. He turned bright red, and said, “What? You mean I’ve been making that mistake since I was a kid? Why didn’t anyone tell me before?”

Maybe because they had been listening to idiots like Mona Chalabi.

Be nice, but correct away. It is the Golden Rule in action, and part of societal duty not to let others hurt themselves. If you are corrected, the correct response is what my college friend said to me once his horror subsided.

“Thank you.”

31 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Guardian Journalist Mona Chalabi

  1. I was in Houston last year and I have a very noticeable Boston accent. The person I was sitting next to was Black and after a few innings he makes a comment that “You people talk funny.” So I look at him and say quite clearly: “AXE me that again?” He just broke up laughing (thankfully).

    If I am pronouncing a word incorrectly I want it rectified. I’m capable of enough embarrassment without language adding to it.

  2. For better or worse “irregardless” has been in a number of judicial opinions and legal briefs. Not proper, but everybody knows what it means in context so I don’t see the harm.

  3. “But Mona, doesn’t you correcting people who correct people’s grammar and calling them purveyors of white privilege make you an ANTI-grammar snob?”
    It’s “your correcting.” “Correcting is a gerund and needs a possessive pronoun. Interesting lapse in a column on grammar…

    • Actually, in this case it was a typo: I left off the “r” on “Your,” though the casual construction of “you correcting” is acceptable in an informal setting: “I’ll never forget Carlton Fisk [in the act of] hitting that home run.” In that construction, I have no problem with it; I put in the category of saying “hopefully” rather than “one hopes.” Equally clear. So just to annoy you, I’m not fixing the typo.

      But thanks for illustrating exactly the kind of gratuitous, non-benign “gotcha!” corrections I discussed in the post. What’s “interesting” about it, jerk?

  4. No, see, but look here, man…this is very uncool. Not being to talk ok is alright especially when other people cant talk right. You get what I’m saying, man. It ain’t kool to be uncool, so chill out. Dis is da new millanaum. Every body dig where I’m coming from?

    To anybody who actually understands what I just said, drop the eubonics and learn to speak English. You’ll likely profit from it, especially when you apply for a job…oh, wait…never mind.

  5. Someone should have told Debbie Wasserman Schultz that the word “misled” wasn’t pronounced “myzeld” . . .

    So she wasn’t maybe trying for “misled,” but “mazel tov”?

    This just reminded me of an exception I make to your otherwise wiseness: To the ends of their lives all my grandparents spoke with Yiddish accents, backwards syntax and not uncommonly, whole phrases in that language spritzed from one end of an English sentence to the other. Only one of them, however, wrote as he spoke. He traveled a great deal after he retired, and invariably wrote postcards to his young relatives at every opportunity. I treasured them, as I did letters from a cowboy friend (a genuine working lifelong cowhand) who did likewise in his own lingo. Both used atrocious spelling and nearly indecipherable handwriting to make extraordinary tales of their ordinary lives. Thirty, forty, now sixty-plus years later the writings will conjure up the sound of their voices, and their unique (to me) ways of thinking as none of my finely educated correspondents, including the ones who make a good living at fiction writing, can do for themselves. Neither Grandpa Ben nor Lloyd ever needed correcting. Nor correction.

  6. Here is the original video of Chalabi:

    I actually don’t see anything to objectionable about what she is saying. In the debate between prescriptive grammar rules versus descriptive grammar rules, she comes out on the descriptive side. We often use ‘they’ now instead of ‘he’ as the universal pronoun. we split infinitives, and end sentences with prepositions. I think the descriptive grammarians have won.

    But the prescriptive grammar folks lurk on the internet, gleefully pouncing on any poor soul who runs astray of any of the many outdated rules as a way of trying to shut down the substance of the person’s comment. If you let them run amuck, most comment sections will devolve into flame wars about the proper uses of the semi-colon. Which is why most comment sections ban the grammar Nazis. Unless it is a site about grammar, or the person truly cannot be understood, it is a subject of interest only to a few.

    • I know you share her bizarre belief that using proper English doesn’t matter. Speaking the way she and you would encourage probably costs people hundreds of thousands of dollars in the lifetime. YOU seem to be able to express yourself very well and clearly. This is a strange variation of not practicing what you preach, no?

      • I believe prescriptive English doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not you can be understood to the audience to whom you are speaking.

        English, even Standard English, is a living language, and as such, undergoes shifts in grammar, pronunciation, and usage all the time. With the rise of the internet, the process has only become more accelerated. The prescriptive English grammar adherents are fighting a losing battle.

        • That’s demonstrably false in business, the professions, academia and the public sector, just to name a few examples. You can believe in unicorns too, but that doesn’t make it reasonable. The issue, as usual, is trust. I don’t trust that someone who cannot speak articulately and correctly is smart, educated or attentive enough to be relied upon, and neither should anyone else. It is similar to Donald Trump’s word clouds. Someone who speaks like that can’t be trusted either.

          • No. Most of them are changing as well. Which, of course, as they consist of people who also communicate not just in their fields, but broader culture as well. As noted upthread, “irregardless” has been creeping into usage in the legal field. The singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun is widely accepted in academia. Business writing tends to be far more casual than either one of those. No one cares about split infinitives, starting sentences with “And”, ending sentences in a preposition and the like. In fact, if you sound overly formal and proper, people think that you are stiff and tend to distrust you.

            Now, of course, if you cannot be understood, that’s something all together different, but most people are perfectly intelligible without speaking perfect Standard English. Very, very few people speak perfect Standard English, and only a few more than that have to write it on a consistent basis. It’s much more of an ideal than a lived reality.

  7. The purpose of grammar is to aid clarity. If a rule does not add to the clarity of what is said then that rule should be dropped, but if it makes what is said clearer then keep it.

  8. I don’t ever run into people really correcting grammar or word choices in verbal communication. When it comes to verbal, I hear corrections and clarifications on facts and substance, especially when a person misspeaks during a debate and the point is potentially a “Gotcha!” situation.

    In writing, especially on the internet, I find Grammar to be a very important subject for everyone to participate so that we can unify voices. I think that’s important because with unified voices, we can start to infer tone such as jokes and sarcasm. You can even infer a foreign speaker and see their viewpoint. All of that is lost in translation is otherwise not possible in a written form of communication. I don’t find it to be snobbery at all, but a learning/teaching moment for anyone who wishes to participate. The beauty of the Internet is also that at any point, if you choose, you can stop engagement immediately and move on or double-down and continue.

    • In its place, used appropriately and sparingly, and not as a fucking substitute for fucking better and more fucking descriptive shit, nothing. Otherwise, it’s like dumping a shaker of salt on edible food.

      • Ohhhhhh, that’s my mistake. I thought you were saying vulgarity as a word, not using vulgarity. And to think, I looked up vulgarity in the dictionary to see if I was using the wrong word my entire life.

  9. It’s a good thing for Mona that she is not serving as a backbencher in the British Parliament. “Shut up you fool!” would be a pretty mild retort and her grammar I’m certain would be soundly mocked. I guess she’d eventually have to go back to her safe space at the Guardian.

  10. I am solidly in Jack’s corner on this issue. Despite what our more liberal friends might tell us, language, whether spoken or written, is not a living and breathing organisms in an evolutionary process. (With language, I include the definition, spelling, and pronunciation of words, which only have meaning if they have some type of permanence.) Language is a tool developed by humans specifically to improve communication between humans. With insistence on definitions, rules, and effort, the tool can be honed and continuously improved such that communication is enhanced. It is not a haphazard, natural, or evolutionary process. Language does not evolve – it is ether forced to become better or it is allowed to morph and/or languish.

    As it is a tool, language is susceptible to various qualities and various qualities of usage. How well we convey ideas, concepts, truths, and imperatives to others is dependent on the quality of our tool and how well we use the tool. Thus, we have high quality language and usage that is understandable by all persons speaking the same language (or translatable when the definitions and usage are stable). We also have low quality language and usage that is understandable by only a few persons. One of these is clearly superior to the other (unless we intend to obfuscate our intent).

    It is often the case that the maximum usefulness of a tool is limited by the expertise of the person wielding the tool. Language is not different. Those of us that want to become experts in our craft, and for which language is one of the tools of our craft, must learn to use the tool of language excellently. This means we must first learn the rules for proper use of the tool. Beyond learning the rules, we must diligently practice following the rules. Only after following the rules by rote, and eventually understanding the purpose of the rules, can we presume to explore innovative and more dangerous uses for the tool. Common misuse of a tool does not make the misuse more tolerable or in any way acceptable. It does make the misuse more dangerous. Rationalizations for misuse of language are simply excuses for less than exemplary human behavior.

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