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The Fun of It

grammar fun copyWhen I was invited to give a talk at Aquinas College on singular they, I barely finished reading the invitation before saying yes. It never crossed my mind that a lecture on this kind of grammar topic might seem like a recipe for the pedantic or dull, until friends teased me about it later. (As Lingua Franca readers can imagine, given my multiple posts on the topic, I have at least an hour’s worth of thoughts on this pronoun and what is at stake in using it — or prohibiting its use.)

The talk happened last Thursday, and we were thrilled that more than 200 people showed up on a school night. Audience members had the chance to vote on the acceptability of sentences with singular they (using the question from the American Heritage Dictionary usage survey), learn more about the origins of the “rule” about generic he, hear my spirited defense of the grammaticality of singular they as a gender-neutral and nonbinary singular pronoun, and see the success of other nonsexist language reforms (e.g., firefighter, police officer). After a lively Q&A, several audience members lingered to talk with me.

One person started, “You have such a fun job!”

I could do nothing but enthusiastically agree. How much more fun could one have than spending an evening talking about pronouns? Or teaching a course called “Grammar Boot Camp”?

Right. You can probably see where I’m going. A talk titled “The Linguistic Case for Gender-Neutral They” might suggest a snoozer. And a course called “Grammar Boot Camp” sounds potentially boring, if not downright painful.

But, in fact, human beings are really interested in language: taking it apart, playing with it, learning more about how it works. It’s why we do crossword puzzles and make puns and create slang words and read blogs like Lingua Franca. Or show up on a Thursday night to hear a talk about pronouns. We have lots of questions about where words and phrases come from, how words get into dictionaries, why English spelling is so irregular, how kids change language, how words exert their power, what texting is doing to English. The curiosity that drives these questions can animate any class on grammar, or any talk on pronouns.

My concern is that the way we teach grammar in school — whether K-12 or college writing classrooms — can take the fun out of it. In my experience, the best way to inspire students to master the conventions of formal, standard English is to allow them to explore usage questions as questions. For example, what are the different opinions about a point of usage? What does the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) tell us about what speakers and published writers are actually doing? Now we’re exploring language rather than trying to drill in one “correct” answer.

Students in “Grammar Boot Camp” were, I think, skeptical at first about COCA and the Google Ngram Viewer. “How is this going to help us understand grammar?” a few asked. But by week three, they were pulling up these resources to learn whether they should write compare to or compare with or to check to see if academic writers really do start sentences with And.

When I talked in class about how the American Heritage usage survey works, students started to see the usage notes as telling signs of continuing debates. For example, if only 50 percent of the usage panel rejects the transitive use of the verb impact (The court ruling will impact the education of minority students), down from 80 percent, how should we handle this as writers in an essay for a class? Or in a cover letter? Students rightly asked along the way how these rules change and whether they wanted to be in the vanguard — with what potential consequences.

Some will argue that this approach to teaching usage is too “sophisticated” for high-school students, but I am not convinced. To take just one example, many teenagers are talking about pronouns right now on their own time. Why not debate in class the pros and cons of using singular they in writing? Such a debate requires students to think about different definitions of “grammatical,” audience considerations, genres of writing, potential ambiguities, etc., as well as to practice their persuasive skills.

Or rather than saying that the Oxford comma is mandatory or “correct,” why not compare usage guides that recommend and don’t recommend it and talk about whether we, as a class, want to adopt it? Usage then becomes about informed choices.

Such an approach to teaching usage takes more time, but I think it has a better shot at sticking in a meaningful way. This kind of close attention to the details of language — which requires reflection on purpose and audience and linguistic choices — is also a key ingredient of effective writing. Besides, debates about pronouns and commas can be spirited and fun.

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