Watch out, it’s the Grammar Police!

6 Aug

I shared this in a few different places recently:

To me, at first glance, it seemed harmless. The world’s cutest grammar police politely pointing out celebrities’ grammar mistakes on Twitter and improving their own knowledge of English in their process. Yes, there may be an element of poking fun, but I can’t imagine Daniel Radcliffe crying himself to sleep because Gabriel from Brazil spotted he’d made an error with his tenses:

Gabriel

The only thing that irritated me slightly was that the promo video had clearly been put together by a school that knew a thing or two about self-promotion. But hey, it’s a cut-throat world out there for language schools, so who can blame them for a bit savvy marketing? They’ve actually done such a good job that the story’s been picked up by the media as far afield as Australia, and I’m sure it hasn’t done any harm to student numbers at Red Balloon schools in Brazil.

With media attention, however, comes the inevitable backlash. There are, as far as I can see, two key reasons why these pint-sized grammar police, or more precisely, the teachers encouraging them, have upset a number of people. These criticims have appeared in a number of places, including a LinkedIn group where I posted the above YouTube video:

1. You make a grammatical error on Twitter. Who cares? There are times when grammar matters, and there are times when it doesn’t. With its immediacy and 140-character limit, Twitter is clearly a place where grammar rules and careful spelling are likely to take a back seat. So it’s wrong to nurture grammar cops who insist that grammar must always adhere to prescribed ‘standards’.

2. Teaching children that unsolicited criticism is acceptable is not a great life lesson. Or in other words, no one likes a smart arse. As a six year old, pointing out an adult’s poor grasp of grammar could, maybe, in the right place and at the right time, be quite funny. But is a public forum like Twitter the right place? Continue dishing out opinions in that way as an adult and you’ll find yourself very short on friends.

So are these fair criticisms? They certainly made me think again about whether or not the video I’d shared was really a bit of harmless fun. And I’m no fan of prescriptivism when it comes to grammar, so my feeling is that there well may be a case for questioning what these young students are being taught indirectly.

There are of course always those who will argue that Twitter (and digital communication in general) is responsible for declining standards in written English, and that this is bad. However, quite apart from the ‘language evolves’ counter-argument, I think most people are perfectly comfortable moving from one form of written communication to another. To form the opinion that a person firing off a Tweet and not worrying about spelling and apostrophes can’t in a different setting write a professional, grammatically correct email is to assume most people are stupid. And that’s a pretty sad view of the world.

However, to suggest that the teachers at Red Balloon have this same world view  is reading far too much into what I’m sure they just saw as a fun way of engaging young kids in English grammar. It would therefore be grossly unfair to write them off as hardcore, blinkered prescriptivists.

On top of this, in the same way that I believe the majority of adults can move comfortably between formal and more ‘relaxed’ attitudes to written grammar, I have faith in the intelligence and common sense of (most) kids.  This reassures me that the the grammar cops from Brazil understand the difference between classroom activities and real life, and that they will not strut around Rio de Janeiro spouting unsolicited criticism at those who cross their paths. In fact, for their sake, I very much hope they don’t. On the contrary, I strongly suspect that their controversial, temporary status as the Twitter grammar police will have no adverse effects on them and they will all grow up to be balanced, polite and well-mannered individuals (more than likely with an excellent grasp of English grammar).

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