Before my first linguistics class, I felt an immense frustration at the smallest of grammatical errors. As I began taking more and more courses in the subject that would end up becoming my major, I saw my relationship to grammar transform.
In linguistics, we discuss the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism. Prescriptivists attempt to uphold standards of “correct” and “incorrect” grammar. Descriptivists (linguists!) attempt to describe grammar as it actually is in our everyday speech. This form of grammar is not something that we need to be taught formally, as it naturally exists in every language regardless of attempts from schoolteachers to correct it. You will hardly ever hear a native English speaker say, “Run dog brown the.” You can, however, certainly find native speakers of certain American English dialects saying, “Y’all might could go.” These distinctions are what linguists are interested in. On the other hand, if we were to speak to our friends using the same formal grammar we use to write an essay, we would wind up sounding quite odd.
As I delved deeper into linguistics, my attitude toward so-called “bad” grammar softened. I find that many of the errors we make usually show the same logic and creativity that allows us to use language in the first place. You can almost look at these mistakes psychoanalytically, as they give us insight to the speaker’s way of thinking and their own understanding of language.
An example of one of these “mistakes” is one I made as a little kid, where I formed my own contraction — “amn’t” — to mean “am not.” I used it no matter how many times my parents tried to drill into my head that it was not a real word. (In fact, it is actually a contraction that is used in some Scottish dialects of English.) It’s a perfectly logical conclusion to come to, given that it follows the same conventions as other contractions in our language. The only real reason this was incorrect is because this simply isn’t a word we use in Northern California English.
Another example would be the mistakes I saw from many non-native English speakers back when I was a tutor. Their English grammar usually resembled the grammar of their native language — Chinese speakers, for instance, often left out determiners in their writing because there are no determiners in the Chinese language. My supervisor would try to guess what the students’ native language was based on what specific mistakes they made, and she was frequently correct.
There’s also my friend who, for almost two decades, believed that the term “tits” referred only to nipples, and not just a synonym for boobs. This is a logical conclusion to reach if you consider the contexts where we would normally hear the word tits, and how much skin would most likely be showing, as opposed to other words for breasts. She maintained that “The word tit sounds sharp, not round.” And it’s true that we frequently choose the words we do not just because of their meaning, but because of something in the rhythm or speech sounds and how much those sounds match our sense of what we’re describing.
Examining these mistakes nonjudgmentally through the lens of linguistics, they act as Freudian slips, giving us a glimpse into how a person relates to the language they speak — I find that these errors can sometimes teach us just as much about language use as “correct” grammar can.