I heard a comedian the other day, on the radio, making fun of how the rest of the country looks down on a Southern accent. It was a funny routine. I wish I could quote from it, but I was driving, it was on the radio, so I can’t.
I dealt with a man once, PhD in Chemistry from Princeton, who called me out on that. He got me on the phone one day and challenged me to pay attention to his words instead of his accents. He said something like “everybody I talk to in California acts like I’m stupid, and nobody listens.” I’m impressed by degrees, though, so I listened. Only because he challenged me. And I was glad I did. He was a very smart guy, with a real talent for software. He spoke with a thick Louisiana accent. Our business never went anywhere, but for other reasons. And he taught me that I too could be a bigot. I didn’t like that lesson, but I learned.
I was reminded of that the other day with Seth Godin’s am I the only one distracted by apostrophes and weird “quoting”? He explains how grammar mistakes with apostrophes and quotes distract him. Me too. It clouds his judgment. Mine too. He says:
When I get a manuscript or see a sign that misuses its and it’s and quotes, I immediately assume that the person who created it is stupid.
And then he apologizes:
I understand that this is a mistake on my part. They’re not necessarily totally stupid, they’re just stupid about apostrophes. It’s a moral failing on my part to conflate the two, but I bet I’m not the only one.
I’m sorry. I go with Seth’s first instinct. Call me elitist. But I get distracted by mistakes on basic grammar such as confusing its and it’s. Use apostrophes for plural nouns having nothing to do with possessives distracts me too. Like spinach showing in the smiling teeth.
The difference, I think, is that accents are much harder to unlearn and aren’t fundamentally correct or incorrect. Grammar is relatively easy to learn, and there is such a thing as correct and incorrect. I think making assumptions for Southern accents is dumb, but making assumptions for bad grammar, is less dumb.
Despite the apology, Seth ends up pretty much in the same place he started on grammar:
What else are your customers judging you on?
It’s not just about being a grammar stickler. The fact is, we’re constantly looking for clues and telling ourselves stories based on limited information. It shouldn’t matter, but it does.
I completely agree. I don’t want to be bigoted against certain accents, which is dumb. But I’m not going to give up on grammar.