Luther Alumni Magazine

On grammar “cops” and “criminals”

Last fall, Luther’s English Department hired Mike Garcia and his wife, Marie Drews ’02, to help with writing instruction and program development in Paideia and the first-year writing courses. Garcia also became the director of Luther’s Writing Center. He hopes to attract more students to the center at various points in their academic career (about 70 percent of visitors are Paideia I students). He’s also training his tutors to specialize in discipline-specific writing and in tutoring ESL students.

“The demographics of Luther keep shifting,” he says, “and the more we recruit students outside of the stereotypical ‘Luther student,’ the more we get students from different backgrounds in writing and reading. We’re looking for places to help students feel confident in those things.”

Over J-term 2016, Garcia taught a course called Grammar Cops and Criminals. It explored how people attempt to protect, preserve, and control the English language, and the motivations behind these attempts. “If someone gets angry over the Oxford comma, where does that anger come from?” Garcia asks. “Language is tied to identity to an extent, and when you start to do things outside of what people want, that may pose a threat to their identity or their notion of right and wrong. Language symbolizes these bigger concepts that are beyond the words.”

We asked Garcia to write about this for our readers.


Last J-term, Mike Garcia, assistant professor of English, taught a class called Grammar Cops and Criminals.
Last J-term, Mike Garcia, assistant professor of English, taught a class called Grammar Cops and Criminals.

If you’ve spent much time online, I’m sure you’re familiar with “grammar cops,” the people who leave comments on news articles and Facebook posts correcting other people’s grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, and so on. Sometimes, these comments appear to be good-faith attempts to assist the writer, similar to a helpful English teacher’s feedback. Far more often, however, the commenter is trying to insult the writer. It’s a way of exploiting the long-standing assumption that language errors indicate a lack of intelligence. Even though this assumption is generally untrue, many of us find it difficult to banish from our minds. Consequently, attacking someone’s grammar can be an effective way to diminish that person’s overall credibility.

In the fall of 2015, I started paying closer attention to the human tendency to use people’s English-language usage to make broader assumptions about them—and I quickly confirmed that this tendency wasn’t limited to grammar policing on the Internet. We use language to make all sorts of judgments about other people, their character, and their motives, and sometimes the consequences of those judgments are graver than a mere squabble on the Internet.

Consider, for example, a hypothetical African American or Latino/a student who enters college with strong critical thinking skills and a willingness to participate in class discussion. However, this student uses a dialect of English that isn’t highly valued in academic settings. Will that dialect difference be significant enough to jeopardize the student’s overall chance to succeed? Will that student be labeled “deficient” throughout his or her academic career?

What about the immigrant who is learning English but still speaks her first language when talking to her family? Will she be judged as unpatriotic and unwilling to assimilate into American culture? (This became a frighteningly real question at a Minnesota Applebee’s last fall. A woman struck an immigrant mother in the face with a beer mug, causing severe injury, because the second woman was speaking in Swahili to her children, and the first woman was upset that she didn’t speak English.)

In the 2016 J-term course Grammar Cops and Criminals, my students and I studied dozens of such examples of language policing—both trivial and serious—and we asked these questions:

• What does the English language mean to us? Why do we feel the need to police it?

• Why do violations of mainstream/standard English make us irritated—or even angry? What causes the emotional reaction?

• Do we sometimes overreact to minor language “crimes,” making them seem more significant than they probably are?

• Do we make false assumptions about the reasons why people use nonstandard varieties of English?

• Do we sometimes pretend to misunderstand others when in reality we’re just impatient, irritated, or culturally narrow-minded?

• Can our policing sometimes go too far, victimizing people whose language backgrounds happen to be outside the mainstream?

Don’t get me wrong, however: just because we explored the potentially negative consequences of language policing, that doesn’t mean we always concluded that grammar cops were bad cops. We spent much of the course identifying the types of English that earn the most respect in the academic world and professional workplace. We also learned how a common understanding of language is necessary for communication. As students considered these points, some of them backed away from their initial arguments for complete linguistic freedom and sought out a more balanced approach. Others held fast to their beliefs, arguing strongly on behalf of the “cops” or the “criminals.” But no matter where we each ended up, we all learned to critique our simplistic assumptions about language and to reconsider the notion of language “criminality.”