I am an Ivy League-educated professional who regularly has to write for my job, who was always in the top English classes in school. And sometimes, I mix up “your” and “you’re.”
I know how grammar works. I always, if I stop to think about it, can figure out which one to use. I know all the tricks. Most of the time, I don’t have to think about it, and the right one comes out. But sometimes, I’m just thinking in terms of what sounds I would make if I were speaking, and I’m in a rush or just distracted or just glitching, and the wrong one comes out.
What’s my point? My point is that written English conventions are hard and unnatural, that even a very educated native speaker can mess them up, even one who writes all the time. Not only are there sets of homophonous grammar words which are super-easy to mess up – such as “you’re” vs “your,” “they’re” vs “their” vs “there” – we also have one of the few spelling systems complicated enough that using it is a competitive national sport. If you were trying to make a language hard to write in on purpose, I’m not sure you’d do better than English.
If written English is basically impossible to get right all the time, even for the most educated native speakers, what about everyone else? Most people are not Ivy League-educated native English speakers. A lot of people learn English in adulthood, or at least later in childhood. A lot of people grow up speaking non-standard dialects. A lot of people simply don’t get the educational opportunities I have had – or simply choose to focus on other skills in life.
So, I say, let’s not use “your”/“you’re” as a value judgment or a sign of stupidity. Obviously if your friend gives you something to copy-edit and they use the wrong one, fix it, but especially in informal settings like social media and text, let’s maybe not make it out to be a bigger deal than it is?
Descriptivism and Prescriptivism#
Is this the dreaded “descriptivism”? Perhaps it is, at least in the sense in which that term is bandied about in popular culture.
In this dramaticized popular conceptualization, descriptivists and prescriptivists are different camps opposing each other, aligned with our larger societal cultural war:
Descriptivists: Made up of linguistics professors and self-appointed activists, the descriptivists align with the culture-war liberals, upholding diversity. They think every form of speech and grammar is equally valid, especially those of underprivileged communities.
Prescriptivists: Made up of English teachers and self-appointed grammarians, the prescriptivists align with culture-war conservatives, upholding tradition. They believe that there is one true system of English grammar, that everyone should aspire to, be taught, and be socially pressured into adhering to.
As you may have guessed from my descriptions, I think this way of looking at the issue is silly. Rather than dividing people into camps, I think there is a more descriptive way of using these terms. I instead would prescribe definitions that focus on attitudes that any person can adopt:
Descriptivism: the attitude of science. If we are acting as linguists, as Sprachwissenschaftler or “language scientists,” then we want to study the amazing fact that humans naturally develop and perpetuate intricate systems for turning sounds into words into sentences. For this goal, all dialects (and sociolects and idiolects) are equally valid, because all of them can teach us more about how language works.
Prescriptivism: the attitude of conventionality. If we are acting as professional writers or speakers or copy-editors, then we want to make sure that we and those we work with can communicate in a way that is comprehensible by our audience, follows the rules of grammar and spelling and punctuation that our audience expects, so that writers and speakers can signal that they take the situation appropriately seriously and so that grammar doesn’t distract from communication. For these goals, what is “valid” (or better put, appropriate) is often the standard, conventionalized, and academic prestige forms of a language.
With these definitions in mind, it is possible for one person to take on different stances in different contexts. An English teacher can use descriptivism when they want to understand why their students speak and write a certain way, or struggle with conventions in comparison to their peers: Is it a problem grasping the concepts, or is it because they speak a different dialect or sociolect from the the other students in their class? In the same class, they can take on a more prescriptivist stance when they set their goals and standards for how the students should ultimately learn to write and speak in formal situations.
Linguistics researchers often study more stigmatized dialects or common non-standardisms in speech, and dispel stereotypes about them that are not based in fact. They then write the resultant papers in immaculate academic formal language. This, of course, makes no sense if you think of prescriptivism and descriptivism as camps, but there is no contradiction here. It makes perfect sense if you instead think of prescriptivism and descriptivism as attitudes, appropriate in different situations.
But my point in this article is not about science, teaching, or professional communication. My point is about what stance to take in everyday communication. And in everyday communication, neither prescriptivism nor descriptivism is appropriate. Unwanted grammar corrections are rude, and so is unwanted field linguistics. The appropriate stance to take in everyday communication is neither descriptivism nor prescriptivism, but rather politeness.
Sure, descriptivism is sometimes used as an argument here. It can be scientifically demonstrated that informal forms of English and even sentences like “It don’t do nothing,” in the dialects where they arise, have their own internal logic, just as sophisticated from an objective standpoint as more prestigious forms of English – even though that has very little to do with the “your”/“you’re” distinction and purely written distinctions like it. Many long-established shibboleths of the ostentatiously grammar-conscious can be shown to have little basis in history or established usage – but “your”/“you’re” is a pretty well-established distinction. We could even find scientific studies to show how much more difficult the English writing system is from those of other languages, but even if it wasn’t, the rules of politeness wouldn’t change.
Science and research may be useful for answering questions like “how can we most effectively teach children?” But it doesn’t really have any bearing on whether we should give people unwanted grammar corrections or use their grammar to judge them. In this, common sense and politeness win the day, and they simply say: “No.” Or perhaps rather: “Please don’t.”
There is one objection that I think is worth addressing, that comes from a place other than raw snobbery. It goes something like this:
But Jimmy! What if this social pressure serves a good purpose? What if it prevents language change, allowing our language to stay as it is for longer, connecting us with writers of the past? What if we really like the way English is and don’t want it to change, for aesthetic or culture reasons, or the belief that the language is in some way particularly well-suited for use as it is?
This objection (phrased differently) was raised when I posted an earlier, shorter version of this essay to Facebook. And I’m not sure what to do with it. I suspect some people think that this is a worthy goal, an upside of grammar corrections to be balanced against the politeness elements. Others, I imagine, see it as a silver lining or a subsidiary purpose to our prescriptions and our societal elevation of relatively conservative conventions and grammar norms.
For me, there are two considerations here. One is whether this works at all. Of course, in the long term, it is futile; English will change eventually, slowly but surely, as it has before, whatever we do. But maybe prescriptive grammar slows down language change.
Does it? Probably, but I think people overestimate the effect. And I think the effect is almost entirely accomplished in those situations where prescriptivism is appropriate, namely, copy-editing and education. I simply don’t think people correcting their acquaintances' text messages for them or judging their grammar online does much to keep the language from changing.
But even if judgmentalism (and fear of judgmentalism) does slow down language change, why does it matter? English as it is now isn’t that special. It’s just a language, like any other. Whatever it evolves into will suit humanity and society’s purposes equally well. Heroic efforts to try and stop the inevitable is not certainly not worth the rudeness that often comes along with them.
I personally am not attached to the current form of English, but there is a way in which I can relate. I do remember being upset at some of the changes that are happening (very slowly) in the German language, but then I was comforted by something: Unless something drastically increases my life-span, German as I’ve learned it will remain a valid and prestigious way to speak German (modulo my mistakes and accent), for the rest of my days.
Perhaps my children’s children will live in a world where German is drastically and unrecoverably different – if I even have children who then have children – but that will be their problem, and I’m sure their opinions will differ from mine.