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Grammar and Power

Updated on November 10, 2016
Grammar is a game of power
Grammar is a game of power

When someone tells you your writing contains errors of grammar they normally do not care about your grammar and are only trying to make a dominance play. There is a simple response that will almost always send them away with their tail between their legs [1]. Complaints about Grammar however mask deeper and darker political and social implications from snobbery to colonialism.

Language and Power

Conquering countries, sometimes deliberately, sometimes for administrative convenience, treat the language of the conquered as inferior to that of the conqueror. Latin became the language of Christendom and having survived the death of the Roman Empire as the language of power, learning and Law for over a millennium. Latin also differentiated the English Elite from the great unwashed. Once Latin ceased to be the daily language of the elite other languages took the role of social marker: in Imperial Russia aristocrats talked French amongst themselves and Russian to the servants. In the Philippines the rich talked Spanish to each other but addressed the servants in the local dialect.

In Russia and the Philippines there was no attempt to destroy the native language. In the United Kingdom, soon after the Act of Union of 1707 Gaelic was forbidden as part of an effort to destroy Scottish Culture.

Dialects and Power

In Russia and the Philippines there was no attempt to destroy the native language. In the United Kingdom, soon after the Act of Union of 1707 Gaelic was forbidden as part of an effort to destroy Scottish Culture.

When the Elite and the Great Unwashed speak the same language you cannot use language to show social status. The answer is to treat the vocabulary and grammar of the elite, the 1% in modern terms, as superior to that of the 99%. Thus in the UK speakers of local dialects were excluded from positions of power or influence. Shaw summed up the resulting situation with admirable concision in the preface to his play Pygmalion

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

Grammar is a travel guide that some consider a rule book
Grammar is a travel guide that some consider a rule book

English Grammar and the 1%

Grammar is a set of rules for defining well formed statements in the language. The word also applies to the rules used by a group of speakers, which makes “Grammar” a cultural phenomenon. Since it is cultural, xenophobia and snobbery explain why “Grammar” is often used to describe a feature of the language the speaker finds objectionable, especially in the case of the written language. To an Englishman or American, Strine and Kiwi, may be considered correct when spoken but not when written [7].

In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker points out that notions of Grammar and “Good” English arose in the 18th Century when England became a world power. The dominant grammar was derived from Latin, which was viewed as a language of enlightenment, precision and logic. Latin, the language of the most powerful Western nation of the classical period, took this crown, rather than Greek for a variety of reasons, one being that Latin was the language of the law and to a lesser extent of government. Latin as a model for Grammar highlights the relationship between language and power. Like keeping pornography in the locked library cabinets of the rich, this was a way to differentiate between the Great Unwashed and the rich, therefore civilised, elite.

Modelling English Grammar on Latin Grammar helped the yuppy youngsters of the day learn Latin. Competing publishers (not grammarians) introduced more and more rules based on Latin, for example not splitting infinitives (impossible in Latin). To an upper class person the written and spoken versions of the language used by the lower class became ungrammatical. Similarly, in the USA the language of poor whites is regarded as inferior to that of rich whites and in turn the language of “white trash” is regarded as superior to Black American. In Scotland socially ambitious parents forced their children to speak English not Scottish. Luckily most children rapidly learned when and how to use which language.

How some think Grammar should be taught
How some think Grammar should be taught

Description Versus Prescription: The Inner Civil Servant

Grammars were initially produced to DESCRIBE how words were assembled into structures of meaning. Dictionaries were invented to DESCRIBE what words were used to mean [6].

Once language usage, like anything else, is described and written down everyone’s inner bureaucrat takes over and tries to insist that this is how it SHOULD be done and anything else is the result of laziness or poor education. The Inner Bureaucrat, or Inner Little Stalin, also tries to use this to wield power over others: there is or was at least one employer who gave cleaners a test of grammar as part of an interview, doubtless unaware that the candidate may speak a working class English rather than Upper Class English.

Since the rules of Grammar were written down in the 18th Century today’s Grammar Nazis are trying to use 21st century concepts and fossilise the English language in 18th century Grammar. This is possible because while it sounds pompous 18th century Elite English is understandable today. Had the rules of grammar been discovered in the time of Chaucer or even as Beowulf was being composed the Grammar Nazis would have a much harder time. Conversely use of a modern reference grammar that reflects actual usage today would require the Grammar Nazis to dismiss Shakespeare, Dryden and Dickens as semiliterate and poorly educated.

Written and Spoken Grammars are different
Written and Spoken Grammars are different

Why we Need Grammar

Language is for communication. A grammatically perfect sentence that does not communicate its meaning is useless. A grammatically flawed sentence that communicates its meaning perfectly is doing its job. A grammatically imperfect sentence that communicates its meaning is better than a grammatically perfect sentence that is hard to follow and tends to disguise its meaning.

Spoken and written grammars differ. The number of verb ending in spoken French is far lower than the number of written endings with the precise role of each element determined largely from context and body language. These clues are missing in the written language and the written endings supply the missing information.

Grammar is thus one of the three handmaidens, Syntax, Semantics and Pragmatics, of the Muses of Language. These mean roughly how words are assembled, what the assembled words are intended to mean and how language used: the intent of the speaker or writer. For written languages there is also the medieval invention known as punctuation which became needed once reading aloud fell out of fashion.

In Summary

Language can be used as a tool of social control when one country conquers another. Within a country keeping the lower orders in control cannot use this technique as it stands and the dialect of the rulers has to be marked out as superior to that of the serfs. In England this was achieved by creating a Latin based grammar that was the mark of the 1%. Self styled grammar experts know little about grammar as understood by grammarians and should be challenged to support their pronouncements. These “experts”, many of whom have been demolished in print by Stephen Pinker, are expressing social and political prejudices not linguistic truths, in order to express their superiority.

It might be going to extremes to call an insistence on “Good Grammar” an authoritarian attitude and call these people authoritarian followers, but they often seem resistant to the truth that Grammar is a guideline not a straitjacket.

Written Grammar is defined by a literate elite hence “Good Grammar” becomes the extent to which the writer has absorbed the canons of the elite.

“Good Grammar” is used by the elite as a tool to reinforce their power. Generally grammar pedants are not aware this is what they are doing

Trying to keep to “Good” Grammar is to concede to the local dominant elite. It may be politically necessary to do this, for example when applying for a job or a loan, but try not to internalise the values of the elite (at least not without thinking about them) or their Grammar.

18th Century Frammar vs 21st Century Language
18th Century Frammar vs 21st Century Language


  1. Just to ask them to send you a copy of the pages in the reference grammar they used that indicate each error. Reference grammars tend to be over a thousand pages, cost a fortune and be excellent cures for insomnia so you are unlikely to hear any more from them.

  2. Wikipedia, Syntax

  3. Wikipedia on Grammar

  4. The Language Instinct: Stephen Pinker, Harper Perennial Modern Classics; 1 2000, dissects the “Language Mavens” from the viewpoint of a professional academic linguist.

  5. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy: Daved Graebar, Melville House 2015

  6. Usually words have, for historical reasons, a number of meanings and the changes in spelling prior to the invention of dictionaries give a clue to how words were pronounced.

  7. Every language has its own syntax and its dialects may have their own distinct syntax. English dialects include Standard English, Geordie and Cockney. Scotland has two major Scottish dialects: three if you include Glaswegian. Every Scottish city has its own dialect, in Ireland Dubliners have problems with the Cork dialect, Germans cannot understand Swiss German, a Swiss friend told me he had problems understanding Swiss German outside the Cities, and in Germany I was told that “Schwabisch” is not German. The variation within and between countries (consider American, Strine, Kiwi, Indian English and Taglish for a start) derails the notion of “correct” grammar which can a most apply to a certain class at a certain time.


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    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 11 months ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Blond Logic: Shaw said Britain and America are two countries separated by a common language, I read that American has retaied more of the grammar of Elizabethan (Elizabeth I that is) than UK English

      Kathleen: Great reply to a grammar nazi. We all take any chance to show we are superior, at least when young, as a software developer I have had my share of arrogance and triy to avoid it now I am older, if perhaps less mature. :) Knowing when to be fussy and when not to be fussy is the start of wisdom

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 11 months ago from Brazil

      I have the same thing in my own house, and there are only two of us! I'm an American married to a Brit. Need I say more?

      This was a fascinating look at language and grammar. I believe communication and not grammar is most important.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 11 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Interesting hub. Being from the South, I'm all too familiar with the smugness that hovers over the grammar nazis. (And having a past in newspaper writing, I've committed some sins of smugness myself.) But my favorite example of good grammar is this:

      A southern woman found herself seated next to a northern woman and her husband at a dinner party. In an attempt to start a conversation she asked the northern woman, "Where are y'all from?" The northern woman replied, "I'm from a place where we know not to end a sentence with a preposition." "Oh," said the southern woman. "Well then, where are y'all from, bitch?"

      Sometimes knowing proper grammar and knowing when it is required are two different things!