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Grammar correction in older fiction?
May 17, 2012 6:46 AM   Subscribe

Correcting the grammar of other people. How long has this been a part of popular culture?

I can't think of a lot of older books I've read that have included this, but it seems to be quite commonplace nowadays in films and TV shows (Big Bang Theory, Sherlock and Castle all spring to mind). And of course the internet is rife with it.

Did it coincide with comprehensive education? The internet?

What's the oldest book or story you know of that includes it?
posted by teraspawn to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know any specific references, but my guess would be that this has been happening in some form since the beginning of a language's codification in grammar.

The casual correcting of grammar requires first that we have a formalized grammar. In the case of English, that would place it in the 16th century, when English as we know it formed and was first used in place of Latin.

But surely before English there were Arabic grammar snobs, Latin grammar snobs, etc..
posted by deathpanels at 6:53 AM on May 17, 2012


There's a great line in the Sherlock Holmes story "A Scandal in Bohemia," where he's not so much correcting someone else's grammer as much as identifying the writer of a note:

“Precisely. And the man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence—‘This account of you we have from all quarters received.’ A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs. "
posted by jquinby at 6:56 AM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


In Aristophanes' play Frogs there is a joke at the expense of an actor who mispronounced the Greek word for 'calm' as 'weasel.' It isn't a correction, but it comes pretty close as it is a joke on someone's expense about a mistake in pronunciation.

The joke is explained in a comment under this post on Language Log. There are also other examples of Ancient (and more modern) peeving. I hope this is close enough to your question to be interesting.

Four Centuries of Peeving

(Ctrl-F 'weasel' for the Frogs bit)
posted by tykky at 7:19 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


In the 13th Century, Dante criticized the entire people of Sardinia for the way they spoke, saying:

"Let us ignore the Sards, then, who are not Latins but appear to be associated with them, because they alone seem to lack their own common tongue, rather imitating Latin grammar as monkeys do men: For they say 'domus nova' and 'dominus meus'."

Oh, burn!
posted by General Tonic at 7:22 AM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


Did it coincide with comprehensive education? The internet?

Comprehensive education was a mid-20th century invention in the UK - Pygmalion predates that by some way.

I'm currently reading Mary McCarthy's The Group, in which 1930s wealthy young Vassar graduates are often corrected by their parents. Parents, and social climbers who clung to the ideas of U and non-U for superiority's sake, existed long before the Internet.
posted by mippy at 7:30 AM on May 17, 2012


You may be getting the idea that in the past grammar wasn't so much corrected as used to identify your socioeconomic origins. My Fair Lady. Correct grammar for its own sake, rather than using it to signify your good breeding, is a relatively recent thing, I think.
posted by mcwetboy at 8:02 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Correcting another adult's grammar in a conversation is incredibly rude (unless they ask specifically whether they're correct). I think it's a very different thing to criticizing grammatical errors in a text you've read.

I think the former is probably more common now, I'm not sure the latter has changed much.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:10 AM on May 17, 2012


In James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, written in the 30s and which takes place between the pre-WWI era and the early years of the depression, a social-climbing prig corrects his wife's pronunciation of "new": "It was not noo."
posted by scratch at 8:19 AM on May 17, 2012


I think it's not the act of correction which has changed but rather standards of manners and humor, which is why you're seeing it on the teevee. I think that regularly and snarkily correcting people's grammar to invalidate them or make fun of them is one of those things that is kind of an internet-asshole behavior which has been adapted as a source of television jokes. It's not that no one ever did it before but that it's beginning to be seen as a source of legitimate humor rather than as a social deficiency on the part of the correcting person.

Like, when I was in my teens if you corrected someone's grammar you'd be seen as a loser nerd - who bothered to remember all that crap anyway? and who thought it was really important? But with the rise of internet culture and the reconfiguration of what you might call nerderie, it's now a way that popular/"normal" people can assert status.

For some reason this reminds me of the "I am probably going to be stalked by my creeper ex-boyfriend who is making a "revenge" comedy documentary" thing...it's depressing how many new kinds of petty meanness are enabled and reinforced by the internet and, through the internet, by television.
posted by Frowner at 8:21 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


(By "thing", I mean the question from yesterday.)
posted by Frowner at 8:22 AM on May 17, 2012


In James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, written in the 30s and which takes place between the pre-WWI era and the early years of the depression, a social-climbing prig corrects his wife's pronunciation of "new": "It was not noo."

In the past there was a great deal of awareness of pronunciation as it revealed class but it was absolutely parvenu and pecksniff to say anything. (Just read Margery Allingham's 1930s snob detective stories - the Jews and the proles always reveal themselves via mispronounciation and are usually written in dialect, while the effete homosexuals speak too precisely...and while the aristocratic characters notice it, they are too polite to say anything). But now that grammar and pronunciation are less profoundly associated with class (thanks to TV and radio), it's okay to mock people about how they talk. I wonder if it's because if you're working class, for example, you can think of what you're mocking as an individual failing - like, you want to undercut someone so you fuss about how they say a word - rather than feeling like you're mocking in them something that also marks you.

I really don't like people very much.
posted by Frowner at 8:26 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Text that has been spell or grammar checked include more mistakes since computers are not able to take context into account. People may comment or post feeling it surely must be correct, as it has been checked, right?

That said, correcting other family members grammar, useage of words and vocabulary was always fair sport in my family while I was growing up. I will never forget the day I incorrectly used the word less, rather than fewer and the ensuing extended lecture I recieved from four relatives. My brother has had to teach himself *not* to do this to his wife, for obvious reasons.
posted by k8oglyph at 8:28 AM on May 17, 2012


> I think it's not the act of correction which has changed but rather standards of manners and humor, which is why you're seeing it on the teevee. I think that regularly and snarkily correcting people's grammar to invalidate them or make fun of them is one of those things that is kind of an internet-asshole behavior which has been adapted as a source of television jokes. It's not that no one ever did it before but that it's beginning to be seen as a source of legitimate humor rather than as a social deficiency on the part of the correcting person.

I suspect this is correct.

> The casual correcting of grammar requires first that we have a formalized grammar. In the case of English, that would place it in the 16th century, when English as we know it formed and was first used in place of Latin.

This is completely wrong. If "English as we know it" is intended to mean Modern English as opposed to Middle English, yes, that change is considered to have happened in the 16th century, but that has nothing to do with either "formalized grammar" or this question. And "was first used in place of Latin" is meaningless; English has been the spoken language of (most of) England since the fifth century, and the written language as well except for a couple of centuries after the Norman Conquest, and in between the written language was not Latin but Anglo-French. Latin was used for prestige writing meant to be shared with readers across Europe. People certainly did not go around correcting each other's grammar or usage in Shakespeare's day, or in Pepys's; that probably started in the eighteenth century, for various reasons having to do with the history of publishing, education, and social/class anxiety.
posted by languagehat at 9:20 AM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, I grew up in the days where teachers drilled proper grammar into my head. I like when people correct each other's grammar only when the poster displays haughty arrogance and fails at his own language. Basically, if I'm to take you seriously, whatever your Native tongue, you better own it. Master your language. That's where I come from. That's for online stuff. However, in real life, I don't make a point of correcting unless it's absolutely necessary. Maybe I'll make a social commentary like "I'm noticing a lot of people saying funner nowadays! Hmm."
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 9:21 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just read Margery Allingham's 1930s snob detective stories - the Jews and the proles always reveal themselves via mispronounciation and are usually written in dialect, while the effete homosexuals speak too precisely...and while the aristocratic characters notice it, they are too polite to say anything

This reminds me of an audition in Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield in which a character always pronounced 'hail' as 'hale'. It was described in a way that made it sound like a disastrous faliure, but I can't work out how else one would pronounce it!

I think that regularly and snarkily correcting people's grammar to invalidate them or make fun of them is one of those things that is kind of an internet-asshole behavior which has been adapted as a source of television jokes. It's not that no one ever did it before but that it's beginning to be seen as a source of legitimate humor rather than as a social deficiency on the part of the correcting person.

Agreed. Your mother would have done it in the past to save face or to save you embarrassment. The anonymous folk on the internet are doing the opposite.
posted by mippy at 9:22 AM on May 17, 2012


The book The Stories of English tells a long tale of the history of English, while paying a great deal of attention to "non-standard" forms of English throughout history (often referred in more modern times as "ungrammatical"), and what society made of the various dialects.

The book is fascinating and makes a great read (or so I thought when I read it).

It may be rather longer an answer to your question than the one you were looking for.
posted by emilyw at 9:33 AM on May 17, 2012


There is a famous story of a 14th century Holy Roman Emperor (Sigismund) whose grammar was corrected by a Cardinal at a conference and he replied "I am king of the Romans and above grammar." (Wikipedia entry for Sigismund) I'm reasonably sure I've heard stories about this being common in the Roman era as well, but I can't think of one that I could cite off the top of my head. I suspect pedants correcting your grammar have been around as long as language.
posted by Lame_username at 12:00 PM on May 17, 2012


People certainly did not go around correcting each other's grammar or usage in Shakespeare's day, or in Pepys's; that probably started in the eighteenth century, for various reasons having to do with the history of publishing, education, and social/class anxiety.

That's my suspicion as well. Publicly correcting someone's grammar is not an instance of transferring information on how to speak from the corrector to the correctee, it's a status game where the corrector tries to establish that they are better educated or of a higher social status.

Widespread social class uncertainty dates back to the industrial revolution and the establishment of what Americans refer to as "the middle class". Suddenly it was no longer obvious exactly what someone's social status was, and these little games became more important.
posted by atrazine at 2:42 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


correcting someone's grammar is not an instance of transferring information on how to speak from the corrector to the correctee, it's a status game

I don't doubt that some people have a "status game" in mind when they correct people's grammar, but it's a failure of imagination to impute that motivation to everyone who does it.

I grew up in a family where we were expected to speak fairly high-register, "correct" English. Any time I said anything non-standard, my parents would correct me instantly. Eventually I'd internalized it to the point that whenever I heard anything non-standard, I'd instantly react with a correction. It wasn't a put-down or related to anything like status; insofar as it was voluntary at all, it was an attempt to help. Like the putative mother in mippy's comment*, if I'd corrected your grammar, I'd have been trying to do something like "save you embarrassment." And I'd absolutely have expected you to do the same for me.

I had to train myself out of it as an adult, obviously, but it still happens surprisingly often in private in the back of my mind.

*incidentally, I just spent twenty minutes using my friendly neighborhood search engine (with no success) to try to figure out how on earth Noel Streatfeild's characters might have prononuced "hail"
posted by tangerine at 10:19 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


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