I’m very interested in grammar. No one cares about it, including me, until it becomes a problem. And it only becomes a problem once someone tells me it is.
If someone were to ask me to explain how grammar works, I wouldn’t know what to say. Grammar is an internalized thing we probably all have judging a string of words as “acceptable” or “not acceptable”. I make grammar mistakes all the time. Sometimes I care about them. Sometimes I don’t. I’m sure I’ve published things filled with grammatical errors - maybe there’s already one in this post. Once, an English teacher gave an essay back to me with “learn grammar” written at the top in big red letters. Another English teacher gave me an impromptu grammar lesson during office hours once. I do not remember what I learned there at all.
Grammar makes people anxious and I completely understand why. It’s when people tell you you’re doing something wrong, what you should be doing instead, and that’s just the way it is. But grammar can also be a nice thing. It’s a reminder that the details matter. It’s a reminder people still pay attention. That’s why I sort of like it.
I sometimes send rushed texts to friends where I don’t bother to correct typos and grammar mistakes. The mistakes don’t change my intended meaning and there’s nothing to lose (I hope). I suppose someone could say I’m being counterproductive to efficient communication by using anything besides standard grammar. The purpose of grammar is to make communication easier, after all.
The chapter “Bad English” from Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning stands out to me. Minor Feelings just came out February this year. It’s an essay collection/autobiography on Asian America. I recommend it! My only critique is it felt dense with theories or works of other distinguished people in humanities. But life-changing nonetheless!
Ms. Hong is a poet and creative writing teacher. For some reason, maybe due to the structure of “essay collection”, I compare Minor Feelings to Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, another essay collection on contemporary culture that’s more lifestyle-y. But on a second note, I’m comparing these two works because the mainstream publishing world lumps both into the category of “successful viral book by Asian women with MFAs” I wonder how Ms. Hong would feel about being compared in this way?
The chapter “Bad English” stands out to me because Hong finds some type of poetic satisfaction in bad English. She talks about collecting photographs on the internet and real-life of mistranslated English from East Asian countries, which I used to LOVE doing too.
Ever since I started writing, I was not just interested in telling my story but also in finding a form—a way of speech—that decentered whiteness. I settled on bad English because, as the artist Gregg Bordowitz said about radical art, it bypasses social media algorithms and consumer demographics by bringing together groups who wouldn’t normally be in the same room together.
You can’t tweet bad English. If I tweeted a line from my poem, it would sink like a lead balloon. Bad English is best shared offline, in a book or performed live; it’s an interactive diction that must be read aloud to be understood, but even if I don’t quite understand it, those chewy syllables just feel familial to me, no matter the cultural source, which is why it brings together racial groups outside whiteness.
But bad English is a dying art because the Internet demands we write clear, succinct poems that stop us mid-scroll. If you want to truly understand someone’s accented English, you have to slow down and listen with your body. You have to train your ears and offer them your full attention. The Internet doesn’t have time for that.
So the strange validation I feel from sending these error-full and potentially unclear texts make more sense now. Partly because there’s satisfaction in going against convention. Breaking the standard reminds me of the standard’s presence. Acceptable grammar is an ever-changing product of history and human randomness eventually judged by a tiny group of historians and English professors in a room somewhere in the U.S. When I realize this, there’s no shame in making a grammar mistake. Which means there’s no shame in being a nonnative speaker, whatever that means.
When I don’t proofread my messages, I suppose I’m just getting lucky people aren’t responding back with ??? or unfriending me. I’m also someone who gets annoyed when others send me unclear messages. I haven’t unfriended anyone for doing that - yet. As a writer, I have strong reactions to some aspects of language for no particular reason. I hope I’m not alone. For example, I don’t like it when people capitalize words in the middle of a sentence that shouldn’t be capitalized. I don’t like certain words. Grammar can also make people tick because language makes us feel, and there’s no way around that.
Whatever my English teacher felt in writing “learn grammar” while grading my essay, I’ve felt before in middle school. Unlike most people, I enjoyed going to middle school. I had a close clique of friends at the time - a Pakistani girl and a Chinese girl, among others. The Chinese girl, A, made blatant grammar mistakes everywhere. She didn’t want us to correct her grammar all the time on AOL and such. It wasn’t fun correcting her all the time, either. So we wrote grammar quizzes for her after school to try to fix her grammar. We could grade her quiz but not explain how the rules worked.
I thought about grammar since the early days. I wondered why something natural for me and others was in fact not natural for some people. Another girl in our friend group had an obsession with fonts and handwriting. She liked Tahoma in AIM. If I’m not surprised that she went on to study graphics design, should I be surprised at myself for graduating from writing grammar quizzes after school to writing a newsletter on grammar?
Please tell your friends to subscribe!