Language Users vs The Grammarians

I advise avoiding pronouns when possible because most writers “tangle” the text. Though the writer knows what is intended, the readers end up confused. I’ve wasted too much time as a reader trying to determine what “those” and “these” were replacing in a paragraph.

Other languages can still create their own confusions for any number of reasons. English lacks any formal rules, though we keep trying to apply them to the language. We spoke for more than 400 years without any concept of grammar or “correct” usage. Grammarians did not create the rules — they noticed and documented the structures that had become standardized usage.

Today, we tell students these rules are important. Why? We imagine there were grammarians in Rome? I’ve lectured on the evolution of writing instruction and most of what we do today didn’t emerge until the nineteenth century. Many of the “rules” we teach students first appeared in Fowler’s essays and texts. If I recall the history, Fowler added the rule demanding we not end sentences with prepositions, though doing so was common in Shakespeare’s works and every other major English-language writer’s compositions.

Intensive grammar instruction in the 1950s and 60s did not produce a wave of brilliant writers. Grammar is an artifact, to be discovered through observation and then documented. Grammar is not something to be dictated by a few self-elected experts. Until the German educational reforms of the nineteenth century, we understood that grammar was subordinate to effective communication.

I am not arguing each person should create his or her own grammar, but I am arguing that the purists overstate the importance of grammar. I believe, based on my own research and readings, that grammar is somehow inherent in the human brain; we seek to organize and standardize for efficiency and clarity. Languages are constantly and unconsciously revised by a community to meet changing circumstances. Grammarians are the antithesis of change and evolution, assuming the roles of careful moderators to restrain the wild libertines abusing the grammarians’ beloved syntax.

My students should learn grammar and appreciate it. I expect students to learn “standard” English and adhere to it in all academic writing. However, I also remind them that speaking in and insisting on “proper” English is a guaranteed path towards isolation. I’m not about to tell my students “Urban English” (“Ebonics”) is acceptable to the business or academic communities. However, I also remind the students that business English is not the same as academic English. We simply “disguise” our linguistic differences better in the supposed middle- and upper-class professional realms.

I am appalled that “texting” slips into student papers. The reality is that their “new” language will be widely used in a generation, even in business writing. I might not like that, but language will continue to evolve without my consent.