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.

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt