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In 1981, Kenyan author and theorist Ngugi wa Thiong’o formally renounced English as his artistic medium. The English language, he claims, is too bound up with colonialism, exploitation, and hegemony to be useful as a means of fighting those forces through literature. Language and politics, for him, are too entwined, too married to one another, for the colonial or post-colonial subject to be able to untangle or divorce them and use them against each other.

Ngugi’s position is radical in many senses, in that it a) calls into question the value of creating art with “borrowed” or learned vocabularies; b) raises serious doubts about people’s control over their languages; and c) rejects English, which is (perhaps unfortunately) often the only language in which Americans and other English-speakers can read fluently. If you or I were to explain this position to most Americans, it would probably be understood as anti-American, while the language it is written in–highly theoretical English–would be read as “elitist.”

Over the course of this presidential election, however, it is becoming clear that many, many Americans not only agree with Ngugi in thinking that a language they perceive as hegemonic can never be appropriated for non-hegemonic purposes, but would actually take his manifesto step further. To many Americans, knowing, understanding, or being able to speak that language identifies you with it so thoroughly that they assume any word of it must have been learned in pillow talk. If you speak the language of lawyers, economists, academics, or diplomats, you must be in bed with them. They do not trust that your words–which come from a percieved hegemonic discourse–can be untangled from the slimy limbs of what that hegemonic discourse stands for: elitism, wealth, and condescention.

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Though I realize this may make me unworthy of love, employment, or life, I must admit that I’ve never read The Grapes of Wrath. I don’t know why; most books I haven’t read despite many, many entreaties to do so can be attributed to some combination of time and pigheadedness. But when I needed a mass market paperback for the bus the other day, I grabbed Steinbeck.

As I opened it and began the first page, I experienced a strong sense of familiarity. It was stronger than could be explained by my brief encounter with the movie. (A ragingly incompetent highschool teacher once summarized the book for us by showing the movie in fast-forward while telling us some of the plot points she could remember. I was so youthfully, self-righteously offended by this method of presenting books that I think I walked out of the class.) It wasn’t the feeling you get when you see someone familiar but can’t place how you know them, because there’s an alienation inherent in that moment. Rather, it was the feeling that comes when you start talking to someone entirely new. Then, something in the conversation seems like it’s happened before, seems like you must–must–have been best friends already. You check a few associations, wondering if you have met, but your paths have never crossed before.

Steinbeck’s writing felt like that. The rhythm, the cadence, the sweeping Oklahoma landscape, the trucker and the truck-stop waitress all felt like we’d somehow already known each other. Now, as I’m paused before the next chapter, I’m finding myself wondering: is this sense of familiarity one of the strange side effects of a Master’s in English, or is it a testament to Steinbeck’s saturation of American literary culture? Is his work so utterly embedded in our reading and our cultural dialogue that merely living and reading in America for a decade steeps me in his style and his subject-matter? Will reading the rest of the book be like learning Latin, when I continually had to sort out how these words were connected to the ones I already knew and when their derivations only confused the original meanings? Will this sense of familiarity make for an instant friend, or just an eerie beginning?

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When I started teaching English, friends started apologizing for their grammar. Some got all apologetic about their emails, while others started correcting their grammar in-sentence as if they had some mental Word grammar-check turned on, and they couldn’t get it to quit putting green squiggly lines under half their sentences. [You’ll notice that my use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun in the previous sentence is grammatically correct because the subject of the sentence is plural. I nearly did a dance when Facebook worked to correct this.]

Having never (I hope!) corrected anyone’s grammar in a casual, non-academic setting without being specifically asked to do so, I was mildly offended at this manifestation of our cultural stereotypes of English teachers. Here, in brief, is the minor rant I’ve either given or been tempted to give in response to this unwarranted defensiveness:

Don’t apologize to me. You’re not turning in a paper. You’re not my student. I’m not grading you, and speaking grammatically correctly is not always situation-appropriate. Humor, comfort, familiarity, and efficiency often call for relaxed grammar rules. Language should be appropriate to its context; it’s just as inappropriate to use correct capitalization and full punctuation in instant messages as it is to use the phrase “wot R U up 2” in an email to an instructor. Granted, the consequences will be different: one will make your correspondent cite your usage repeatedly in conversations about the decline of civilization, while the other will make your correspondent laugh at you, albeit briefly. Guess which is which.

The trick is being able to distinguish; errors in this area are not so much an indicator of that nebulous evil, “bad grammar,” but of that much more nebulous issue, wrong grammar. People who are really good at communicating do not have “perfect grammar.” Instead, they have a much more complex set of skills that involves learning the rules of a specific discourse community (a phrase hijacked from the discourse community of Composition & Rhetoric studies, but one I find tremendously productive), learning to follow those rules, and then determining which discourse community one is operating in at any given time. These require a lot more careful observation and shrewd imitation than diagramming sentences.

Not that I’m ripping on diagramming sentences. Go, diagram sentences! I expect graphics demonstrating your diagramming skillz in the comments. In fact, I will offer a luxury Corey-diagrammed sentence to anyone who leaves me his or her own. If it’s really pretty, I may even get ambitious and send you a book about it, just to keep my English teacher cred and lighten that bookshelf.

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