One day — shortly after returning to Yale following summer vacation — I said something grammatically incorrect to a friend. Perhaps I used a double negative or switched up the proper syntax of a sentence but the actual content of my utterance was irrelevant. After I finished speaking, my friend looked at me, puzzled, and pointed out my mistake.

Immediately, I kicked myself for my blunder.

Language, among other things, is often a marker of class. We like to think that we’re not judged for certain cultural markers. When I explained why I had to code switch at Yale, my friend made the argument that I shouldn’t feel the pressure to adhere to grammatically correct English. She naively argued that my peers would instead judge me for the content of my ideas. In Ryan Bloom’s 2012 New Yorker article “Inescapably, You’re Judged by Your Language,” he writes that every statement contains biases and secret constructions. And unfortunately, when we use syntax that deviates from “standard” English grammar, it can often be a marker of belonging to a lower class.

At Yale, many students and professors tend to adhere to a white, upper-middle-class culture. A quick Google search of the demographic breakdown of the freshman class will show that at least one-third of freshmen belong to families that make over $250,000. Although it’s hard to discern exactly how classism culturally manifests on campus, the markers are certainly there. When you grab lunch with your peers, how many of them use double negatives? Or casually bring up Sartre in conversation? Or use the proper French pronunciation to order a croissant? Language is power; the Yale vernacular is socially powerful.

But classism quite obviously extends beyond language and culture at Yale.

So many factors — both culturally and materially — contribute to the socio-economic pressures that many students face at Yale. Last week, on Thursday, there were protests against the student income contribution. For many students, the student income contribution — which is set at $5,950 for most students — is an inhibiting factor that disproportionately affects some students. Many Yalies feel the pressure to take out loans and acquire student jobs in order to pay off the student income contribution, although Yale claims that no student should have to take out such loans. It seems obvious that something should be done to minimize the cost of tuition for those who are most in need of financial aid.

There are many expenses unaccounted for by the Financial Aid Office. In my freshman year I spent over $400 for books for Directed Studies. Although I am lucky enough to have a job with relatively short hours and a fairly good financial aid package, the cost of school supplies and everyday expenses were still quite steep. I am not alone in this experience.

But we shouldn’t stop at minimizing the student income contribution.

We must recognize that classism is much more complicated than reducing tuition. For many of us hailing from inner cities and lower to working-class backgrounds, matriculating at Yale is also a culture shock. We have to teach ourselves many small things — from the language we use and the publications we reference — in order to navigate this deeply socially stratified space. The student income contribution is an obvious barrier to fully engaging with campus life; the panacea to the cultural quandary seems less apparent.

We’re all trying to get ahead here; don’t judge others when they don’t pick up on certain cultural markers. If a freshman says that they haven’t read Livy do not gasp in horror. Instead, pick up your handy copy of the “History of Rome” and show them your favorite part. Not everyone has been to Paris, not everyone knows what herringbone print is and not everyone listens to Wagner. We all grew up with unique knowledge in unique contexts. Sharing is caring, and in sharing, we must find ways to help provide support for these students on an institutional and social level.

Change is personal as well as political.

Isis Davis-Marks is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at isis.davis-marks@yale.edu .

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    I choose to assume that the author is, in her “real” life, less self-absorbed, less defensive. I assume (more than hope) that she is focused mainly on excelling in her studies, thus heading off any possible detractors. Stop worrying. Relax.

    A Cantabrigian acquaintance, woefully insecure and culturally naive upon matriculation to Fair Hahvahd, four years later took some measure of pleasure — working her way to the aisle to accept her summa — in driving her stilettos into certain and select dorsal forefeet. “Oh, ‘scuse me. So sorry. Pardon me. My bad.”

    I do not condone such overt expression, and share instead Samuel Goldwyn’s advice regarding critics: “Don’t even ignore ’em.”

  • Jack Gladney

    The phrase “grammatically correct English” is troublesome, since native speakers rarely (if ever) make grammatical errors. As we learn to speak our native language during our early years, we quickly become experts in that language’s grammar.

    It’s better to think of grammar as standard and nonstandard. Whatever you said that made your pedantic-sounding friend raise their eyebrows might have been ungrammatical in standard English, but I’m sure it was perfectly grammatical in whatever dialect you speak when you’re not writing papers for your classes or giving presentations in front of classmates.

    So the only blunder here was your friend’s, not yours. Instead of pointing out what they perceived as a “mistake”, they should have asked about the construction. Every dialect has its grammatical quirks–I’m from a part of the country where the “needs washed” construction is grammatical–and those quirks are fascinating looks at the messy inner workings of our language. Indeed, the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project provides a great look at some of those quirks.

    You are right that our use of language is a marker of class. And, fair or not, in essays and job interviews and lab reports and presentations, we will be judged harshly if we do not adhere to the conventions of standard English. But for a friend to expect you to adhere to those conventions in a casual conversation–seriously, friend, get over yourself.