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Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language [Paperback]

Jila Ghomeshi
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Nov. 15 2010 Semaphore

It is hard to find someone who doesn’t have a pet peeve about language. The act of bemoaning the decline of language has become something of a cottage industry. High profile, self-appointed language police worry that new forms of popular media are contributing to sloppiness, imprecision, and a general disregard for the rules of grammar and speech.

Within linguistics the term “prescriptivism” is used to refer to the judgements that people make about language based on the idea that some forms and uses of language are correct and others incorrect. This book argues that prescriptivism is unfounded at its very core, and explores why it is, nevertheless, such a popular position. In doing so it addresses the politics of language: what prescriptivist positions about language use reveal about power, authority, and various social prejudices.


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Review

I am whole-heartedly in favour of Ghomeshi’s fascinating, accessible and well-organized argument. Her book is a call for liberation from the inherent judgments of prescriptivism; such self-reflection should be encouraged. — Britt Embry, The Uniter

Ghomeshi argues persuasively that fluidity in language usage, understanding of nuance and the natural evolution of language—communication in a state of dynamism—is preferable to language dictated by prescriptivists. Her book is informative, interesting and should appeal to a wide range of readers. — Heather Craig, Telegraph-Journal

Ghomeshi has written a careful and intelligent book that teaches the reader a great deal about linguistics and about the English language. The book is a gem. — Lawrie Cherniack, Winnipeg Free PressIn a remarkably easy read, Ghomeshi guides us point by point through an analysis of the source of common language-biases and how they are woven into the very fabric of all of our social relationships. It’s not a far leap as the book unfolds to understand how language purism has become a refuge for types of biased thinking that people are now socially prohibited from expressing. Ghomeshi educates, entertains, and invites us all to deconstruct ourselves and our relationship with language.—BiblioDrome

Grammar Matters packs a lot of punch into its pocketbook size. For linguists, this book is a perfect response for every time you tell someone you’re a linguist and they start revealing their pet hates about English. It’s a book that promotes linguistics, explains the social significance of language and encourages reflection on our own prejudices. It should certainly be handed out to those who relished Eats, Shoots and Leaves.—Mae Hurley, in Linguist List

A more incendiary writer—or a more sensationalist publisher—might have titled this book Grammar Gurus Are Bigots. But Jila Ghomeshi is not an attack dog; she is a moderate-toned professor of linguistics. Nonetheless, her main theme is clear: abhorrence of non-standard grammar is a form of prejudice with no basis in reason, experience, or fact.—James Harbeck, in Sesquiotica/EAC Active Voice

About the Author

Jila Ghomeshi is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Manitoba.

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language by Jila Ghomeshi is a pocket-size book of 101 pages that is full of information. By no means a primer for armchair linguists, Ghomeshi states her case in the introduction that she "will not shy away from using more technical terms and concepts". Thus Grammar Matters is most definitely not a Very Short Introduction. The main argument is best summed up by the blurb on the back cover. I could not find a way to express it better myself:

"It is hard to find someone who doesn't have a pet peeve about language. The act of bemoaning the decline of language has become something of a cottage industry. High profile, self-appointed language police worry that new forms of popular media are contributing to sloppiness, imprecision, and a general disregard for the rules of grammar and speech. Within linguistics the term "prescriptivism" is used to refer to the judgements that people make about language based on the idea that some forms and uses of language are correct and others incorrect. This book argues that prescriptivism is unfounded at its very core, and explores why it is, nevertheless, such a popular position. In doing so it addresses the politics of language: what prescriptivist positions about language use reveal about power, authority, and various social prejudices."

Ghomeshi argues that there is nothing inherently wrong about using "non-standard" English and that all arguments about the superiority of standard English are baseless. For example, whether or not one pronounces the /eng/ as the final sound in present participles (such as walkin', talkin', refudiatin') does not an ignorant uneducated speaker make.
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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fun little book Sept. 12 2011
By Watching and waiting - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you've ever felt insecure about your mastery of the English language, this little book may help ease your anxiety. The author shows how many of the bugaboos of "proper" English usage are nothing more than the invention of people who want to use language as a tool for social class distinctions. "Rules" like not using no double negatives, or not using "they" as a genderless singular pronoun ("Every student in the class had their own book"), do not contribute to logic or clarity, despite the vehement protestations of the language mavens. They simply aim to establish one dialect of English as more prestigious than another. For reasons of social advancement, it's probably useful to control the prestige dialect, but the use of non-standard dialects is not a sign of ignorance or mental deficiency.

Of course, if you are a language maven, you will be outraged by this book. But if you're willing to spend the hour it takes to read it, you might possibly learn something.
1 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars There is nothing wrong with prescriptivist thought on grammar misuse April 30 2012
By Craig Rowland - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language by Jila Ghomeshi is a pocket-size book of 101 pages that is full of information. By no means a primer for armchair linguists, Ghomeshi states her case in the introduction that she "will not shy away from using more technical terms and concepts". Thus Grammar Matters is most definitely not a Very Short Introduction. The main argument is best summed up by the blurb on the back cover. I could not find a way to express it better myself:

"It is hard to find someone who doesn't have a pet peeve about language. The act of bemoaning the decline of language has become something of a cottage industry. High profile, self-appointed language police worry that new forms of popular media are contributing to sloppiness, imprecision, and a general disregard for the rules of grammar and speech. Within linguistics the term "prescriptivism" is used to refer to the judgements that people make about language based on the idea that some forms and uses of language are correct and others incorrect. This book argues that prescriptivism is unfounded at its very core, and explores why it is, nevertheless, such a popular position. In doing so it addresses the politics of language: what prescriptivist positions about language use reveal about power, authority, and various social prejudices."

Ghomeshi argues that there is nothing inherently wrong about using "non-standard" English and that all arguments about the superiority of standard English are baseless. For example, whether or not one pronounces the /eng/ as the final sound in present participles (such as walkin', talkin', refudiatin') does not an ignorant uneducated speaker make. There is no extra effort for the speaker to utter the final sound as /eng/ or /n/, so laziness is not a valid argument for those who clip their /eng/'s.

The chapter entitled "Why does non-standard grammar persist?" was the most interesting, wherein Ghomeshi analyzes why educated people deliberately write and speak in non-standard forms. From "Krispy Kreme" doughnuts to lolcat speak ("I are crying cuz I are out of focuss") we see the underlying reasons businesses and everyday people write and speak in a variety of idioms of English depending on their situation. University professors such as Ghomeshi or Condoleezza Rice might shift into an intimate vernacular when talking among family members. Having a PhD does not mean that one has abandoned the language of one's intimates. Ghomeshi writes:

"To take ain't as an example, if the people in my circle of friends, family, and acquaintances use ain't, I will too. To not use it may appear to be some sort of judgment on the language of those I love. By using ain't, however, I am not choosing to be considered an uneducated rural hick although I very well might be."

Note how Ghomeshi uses two different spellings of "judgement"/"judgment" in the quote above and in the introductory blurb at the beginning of this review. While both are correct spellings, she should be consistent with one spelling throughout her work.

In spite of the book's brevity I feel that Ghomeshi overdid it in when discussing her prescriptivism-versus-descriptivism argument. By the end of page 101 I was tired of hearing her argue against prescriptivism. I fully admit to being a grammar snob, one of those "language police" she writes about so derisively. In my opinion linguistic phenomena such as dropping one's /eng/'s is a symptom of being uneducated, or at least of speaking a non-standard form of proper English. I believe that it should be possible to look into the historical evolution of this trait and see where and when one first encountered this style of pronunciation. I do not believe that the dropping of the final /eng/ occurred in colonial American cities, urban centres where one found businesses and universities, but rather in homesteads and plantations where literacy or even schoolhouses were few and far between. Either that or I grew up watching too much "Hee Haw".
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