The Grammarphobia Blog

Is it racist to “stereotype” a language?

Q: Some friends called me a racist for saying, “Hebrew looks like a horizontal line with squiggly writing across it.” And other friends were offended when I said, “English is insane, given its bizarre and sometimes arbitrary rules.” Am I insensitive for “stereotyping” these languages? Don’t be afraid to tell me I’m wrong.

A: No, we don’t think it was insensitive of you to describe Hebrew and English the way you did. It may have been wrongheaded, but not insensitive! You were describing languages, not people.

Your description of Hebrew (we assume you’re referring to script) would apply to handwriting in just about any unfamiliar language: Arabic, Swahili, Vietnamese, even English, though some languages can be written vertically.

As for your comment about English, we don’t think it was poor form, but we disagree with you that the rules of English are “bizarre and sometimes arbitrary.”

In fact, the rules of English are quite sensible, and stretchy when a little flexibility is required.

If a “rule” doesn’t make sense or puts you in a straitjacket, it’s probably not a rule at all.

The prohibition against “splitting” an infinitive, for example, is a perfect example of a bogus rule.

Two other phony no-noes: beginning a sentence with a conjunction and ending one with a preposition.

If any readers of the blog disagree with us about these “rules,” take a moment to look at the Grammar Myths page on Grammarphobia.com.

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