Talking About Grammar Pedantry

Seven hundred and seventeen comments in four days. The readers of The Wall Street Journal have many feelings about grammar.

On March 13, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Oliver Kamm titled “There Is No ‘Proper English.’” In it Kamm makes arguments with which I wholeheartedly agree, including: The English language is not in deep decline; a wide range of variants are all grammatical in the descriptive sense; Standard English is not “correct” and all other dialects are not “improper” or “incorrect”; we need to pay close attention to how people actually use the language as opposed to just how we think they should use the language; people should not be discriminated against based on their dialects; and language instruction should aim to help speakers and writers address different audiences as effectively as possible within that register.

I was delighted to see these perspectives getting aired — and debated — on The Wall Street Journal website.

At the same time, I found myself mulling over the effectiveness of a couple of the rhetorical strategies Kamm employs to present these linguistically informed perspectives. In particular, I found myself thinking about loaded words like superstition and stupid.

I am no fan of grammatical pedantry, as I have written about on this blog. And I agree with Kamm that we could and should relax about some of the stylistic variation that is available to us as writers (e.g., ending a sentence with a preposition or pied-piping it — That’s the rule I was referring to vs. That’s the rule to which I was referring). We may find one variant more aesthetically pleasing or more formal than the other, but there is no good reason to call one “proper” and one “improper” in some more universal sense.

What may get lost in headlines like “There Is No ‘Proper English’” (and I don’t hold Kamm responsible for the headline, as I know headlines often get added by editors) is the point that there is nonetheless a cultural and social value in standard English. Standard English, like all standard languages, can serve as a kind of lingua franca, especially in writing, for people who use different dialects. It also provides a target for speakers learning English as a second or foreign language. The problems emerge when standard English gets mistakenly equated with “the only kind of good/right/correct English.” Kamm notes, later in the article, that teaching the conventions of standard English is “vital,” but the comments to the article suggest that this point was largely drowned out by the assertion that most of the grammar and style rules we have learned are “superstitions,” which suggests that most if not all of them have little value at all.

Some rules (or, more accurately, “conventions for standard edited prose”), such as not splitting infinitives and never using “firstly,” are not very well founded. For example, they discriminate between constructions that are arguably equally clear and idiomatic; or they present an aesthetic preference as an issue of logic. You’ll notice, though, that I’m avoiding the word stupid. I do not want to suggest that people are being silly or stupid to believe that at this moment in time there are cultural and social stakes involved in learning some of these conventions so that they can decide whether or not to follow the conventions for a specific audience.

Other conventions for standard edited prose aim to minimize ambiguity in the written standard language (e.g., rules about misplaced or dangling modifiers) or strengthen the rhetorical force of the prose (e.g., avoiding passive constructions that introduce unspecified agents). These goals can enhance our ability to make effective written arguments in specific contexts. For example, in most traditional forms of written language, ambiguity cannot be relatively quickly resolved the way it can be in the spoken. And while it is perfectly grammatical to write The rustling of papers was heard in the exam room, to write The rustling of paper filled the exam room does not introduce the question of who was doing that hearing exactly. We can imagine contexts, though, where that question might be one we want to raise. The point is that we can effectively teach these kinds of conventions as part of the choices we make as writers (and speakers) given what we want to accomplish — and we can do so without also suggesting that what is a convention is in fact an unbreakable rule.

When we’re told to avoid a construction in standard edited English, it probably isn’t because it is ungrammatical in the descriptive sense. Kamm is absolutely right about that. It may be because the construction is nonstandard or informal. But I wouldn’t call that advice about usage a superstition. I would call it a convention.

Why not a superstition? To say that there are standard and nonstandard grammatical structures, as well as more and less formal ways of saying and writing things, is not to promote ideas with no validity or evidence (a standard definition of a superstition).

To me, we get closer to the realm of superstition if and when we say a nonstandard, informal, or new construction is indisputably “wrong” or “not possible”—for example, that the pronoun they cannot be singular, when usage tells us that it clearly can be and often is. That kind of statement promotes beliefs that our everyday usage as speakers and writers somehow isn’t possible and breaks “rules of grammar.” That is not true — but it is what can happen when standard English gets conflated with “correct English” or just “English.”

My former colleague and mentor Richard W. Bailey once said, “There’s a great deal to be learned if you just shut up and listen, rather than saying, well, I have these academic credentials and therefore my opinion’s the only one worth having.” And I appreciate that Kamm is urging us to listen rather than scold.

Kamm rightly asks us to listen to usage, including all the different dialects of English. Hear, hear! And while I agree that language is usage, I would be sure to add that it is all kinds of usage. So formal usage and informal usage, standard usage and nonstandard usage, and arguably spoken usage and written usage. What a good usage guide can do is help us understand and effectively navigate those distinctions to achieve our own purposes as speakers and writers without ill-founded and sometimes snobbish pedantry.

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