The blog Strikeout for UC Berkeley’s student newspaper The Daily Californian recently tackled the alleged ungrammaticality of utterances by (fictional) Mean Girl Gretchen Wieners. Copy editor Yoojin Kim provided three examples of “awful violations of grammar rules” by Wieners, a member of the dominant clique, The Plastics, in the film which explores the complex social dynamic of high school girls. Kim criticises her lack of subjunctive, her use of irregardless and apparent misuse of relative pronouns (Wieners says ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ in reference to a person).

Credit where credit is due: Kim has managed to take something that is for most people relatively mundane (i.e. grammar) and present it in an interesting and approachable way for her target audience. However, the linguist in me cannot quite cope with the dissection of fictional characters’ utterances, especially when targeting some forms which one could even argue are generally acceptable. Like many other elements of English usage, flexibility in relation to subjunctives and relative pronouns is well documented – and while irregardless cannot be considered standard usage, it has been used consistently enough to make it into both the OEDand the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Yet Kim assures us: “While the Plastics may not be interested in using formal language, the rest of us really should be”.

David Crystal believes members of Generation Y will become less prescriptive than their elders. He credits this to changes in educational approach across English-speaking countries that have occurred since the 1990s, where the curriculum focuses on teaching students about variation and acceptability according to context. But is that really the case if university students are prescriptively analysing teen movies?

Kim seems to miss the fact that the high school playground of Mean Girls is hardly a location for formal language use. It seems that context is entirely absent from the equation. Yet language is nothing without context; and while purported ungrammatical utterances may serve as shibboleths out in the ‘real world’, marking a person as ‘uneducated’, in the world of cliques and bullying that is high school they are more likely to be indicative of the height of ‘cool’.

Hypervigilance toward linguistic faux pas demonstrates that many young speakers aren’t overly concerned with regional variation, language change, or even the potential implications of having fictional characters use specific linguistic forms. (What, for example, does it say about the character? Does Gretchen Wieners’ use of irregardless tell us something about her?)  Instead, they are associating ‘correct’ grammar with ideals such as education and intellect – just as older speakers schooled in traditional grammar often do – and are judging anyone whose language lies outside this imagined standard as lacking in such qualities. Even fictional characters are subjected to tirades over the internet should they dare misplace their apostrophes or confuse their homophones.

This attempt to dictate language use (and change) brings to mind another line from Mean Girls. Queen bee, Regina George, chastises poor Gretchen: “Gretchen, stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not going to happen!” Perhaps we need to find a new way of telling Kim and her peers to stop trying to prevent change from happening? It’s going to happen!

The key lies in approaching grammatical prescriptivism, not as the product of ignorance, as something that can be educated away, but rather as a natural part of human linguistic competence. This alternative framework, known as verbal hygiene and developed by British linguist Deborah Cameron, considers both prescriptivism and descriptive linguistics to be forms of one activity: our “urge to meddle in matters of language”. It promises to elicit greater understanding of why people hold prescriptive opinions about language. In fact, Cameron suggests that if we can understand why people are so opposed to Oxford commas and other ‘solecisms’ in the first instance, it may be possible to combat extreme prescriptivist attitudes. Given the extent of social inequality that prescriptivism can lead to, this is an admirable and important goal.

Further investigation is needed; but if posts like Kim’s are anything to go by, it appears that educational reform has made little difference so far. Indeed, the current approach does not seem to have reduced rates of prescriptivism – and while most linguists may not like prescriptive commentary, it cannot be swept under the carpet. People are still criticising each other; and now they have the whole of the internet behind them to bolster their confidence.

Allie Severin is an Honours student in linguistics at Monash University. She is fascinated by normative linguistics and sociolinguistics. When not attempting to write her thesis, she can be found discussing the joy of splitting infinitives with unsuspecting strangers.

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