• M. Christine Benner Dixon

Grammarians for Social Change!

You may say you do it for the sake of precision. “You didn’t literally lose your mind--it’s still in there somewhere.” You may do it with an air of unassailable rectitude. “The correct phrasing is ‘he and I rode off into the sunset.’” But if you are using grammar rules and pedantic definitions as a screen for resisting inclusivity and so-called “politically correct” speech, then I’ve got some bad news for you: you don’t understand language at all.

The moment you think you have language figured out, nailed down, and fully contained in neat little rules, you are in dangerous territory. It’s like trying to stand still against incoming ocean waves. At best, you slowly sink into the sand. At worst, your rigidity makes you vulnerable, and you’re knocked off your feet.

Now, I love grammar. I am quite taken with the way that the parts of speech shape each other, the way that structures are built and tested by our sentences, the way that omitted words can be understood in elliptical constructions. But as I see it, these things aren’t grammar rules; they’re grammatical patterns. I am not the first word nerd to say it, and I won’t be the last: grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Language does not exist for our personal amusement and/or gratification. Language does not exist to outline the boundaries of one’s own rightness. Language exists for the sake of communication. And when it comes to communication, context is everything.

Yes, there was a period in American history when the term “Negro” was acceptable (though never uncomplicated) in polite speech. Today, it is not. Why? Because it was used frequently enough to deliver poison that the word itself became tainted. Because it offered cover for an uglier, more violent word. Because it created a false distance from the stark division between Black and white in our society. So many reasons. By ignoring the context that gives this word its current meaning, one ignores the true workings of language. The same goes for any number of terms referring to people’s gender identity, sexuality, ability, age, etc.

Language that used to be gentle is now barbed and no amount of complaining about it will change that fact. So here you are in the 21st Century, feeling overwhelmed and a little nervous, because you don’t know if you should be saying Black (big B, little b?) or person of color or BIPOC or Hispanic or Latinx or queer or nonbinary or gay or what . . . and you just want someone to give you the rule for goodness’ sake!

Sorry, sister. There isn’t a rule. There are, however, meaningful, dynamic, and communicative patterns that change as people change. This is the stuff of language. If you really care about precision, then you will attend to the received meaning of these words in their current context, not just the meaning you wish they had.

The fact that language has changed over the course of your life should not surprise you, nor should it defeat you. You’ve adapted before. By and large, most of us have figured out cell phones and social media with relative ease--even the older generations. Credit cards with chips in them didn’t defeat us. New TSA requirements at the airport did not result in the wholesale grounding of the elderly. Our adaptability should come as no surprise.

People were born to learn. You try something, you get it wrong, you get corrected, you reflect on the error, you try again with a new approach. It’s how you learned to walk. It’s how you learned to send an email. It’s how you’ll learn to use the singular “they” and talk about trans* people without misgendering them and talk about people of other races without dehumanizing them and talk about people with disabilities while respecting their dignity. And on and on. You know how to learn. It’s one of your best qualities.

I am not going to offer you a "Dos and Don’ts" list. A.) I am not qualified to do so. B.) It's too easy to get locked into thinking that once you’ve learned what’s currently “correct” that your work is done. Just like there will always be a redesign of Facebook or a new style of phone to get used to, there will always be new language to learn in order to demonstrate your respect for the people around you. But don’t worry. You’ll get it. Be humble, be flexible, be interested. And like a good grammarian, keep your eye on the rolling tide, brace for the jump, and then ride the wave of language wherever it goes.

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