Writing Softly: Carrying Prescriptive Grammar like a Blunt Object

This piece was originally written for a composition teaching journal in April 2015. 
Considerable hullabaloo accompanies what some deem incorrect usage of language. Seriously, did he just write hullaballoo in an academic piece? Hopefully you see what I mean. Seriously, did he just use second person? Is he engaging in meta-discourse? Composition instructors, some of whom might have throated some deep consternation in the opening lines of this discussion, tend to face the expectation that they erect themselves on mountains among a network of so-called authorities on the English language, and from such heights, prescribe, as a doctor would medication, remedies for the “diseases” of the English language. For these administrators and “language mavens” alike, one of the principle concerns of the 21st century—the age of text messages and tweets—is the shortage of correct grammar, correct, of course, in terms of standards often set by the same group of people. This, I posit, is the real threat to the English language and its users.
Language is something like water in its ability to take many shapes. It is malleable, but it is like this not because a false set of grammar idols prescribe rules. If anything language mavens seek to temper language, to tame it, to force it into the shape they deem most attractive. Rather language is malleable simply because the nature of language is that it depends on the society and culture. So when it comes to acceptable use of grammar, the question becomes: “Acceptable” to whom? (Lindemann 65). For example, my mother told me that “ain’t” is not a word, contrary to the direct fact that I’d been using it irrespective of her prescription and the evidence that she and everyone else understood what I meant by “ain’t.” Rebellious as I was, I responded to her prescriptions with the maxim: “ain’t ain’t a word, and I ain’t gonna say it.” Frustrated, my mother responded by promptly hitting me over the head with her open palm.
So what is accomplished in this teaching style? Behavioral changes certainly were not. What this really accomplishes is the same as what many well-meaning English teachers accomplish: the loss of confidence in student writing. More than that, as Steven Pinker writes, teaching Standard American English grammar with a heavy hand stigmatizes the diverse and many dialects available in the United States.
To be clear, my position is not to stop teaching grammar all together and let the language become a free-for-all. Using tenses appropriately, using subject and verbs, using the most accurate diction, and giving pronouns antecedents—composition instructors should encourage these practices as they fulfill the intended purpose of language: to express oneself clearly. But leave ain’t alone, stop battering students for splitting infinitives, and give “hopefully” a rest because language should not be fought.
“Indeed, appreciating the linguistic genius of your ordinary Joe is the cure for the deepest fear of the mavens: that English is steadily deteriorating. Every component of every language changes over time, and at any moment a language is enduring many losses” (Pinker).


Alexander E.

Methodical English tutor specializing in ESL

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