Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Take a breath. The wells of English are not defiled.

 Someone raised a question today at an online grammar site, "Why is correct grammar a lost art?" and damme, I am heading down a well-worn path. 

It is a bad question for two main reasons. First, grammar is not a lost art. Grammatical writing can be found at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and even in many blogs (including [cough] this one). 

Second, it is misguided to speak of "correct" English as if standard English, the form used in schools, government, and the professions were the only one, true English. Standard English is a dialect of English, one very useful if you aspire to academia, government, or the professions, but all the other English dialects possess distinct and genuine vocabularies and syntax. African American and Appalachian English are just as much Englishes as the standard version. (So stop belittling the people who use them, and stop moaning that what Dr. Johnson called "the wells of English undefiled" have been polluted.)

Usually people who bemoan what they imagine to be the passing of grammatical English are harboring an  assumption that there was a golden age when all the children dutifully learned their English and wrote it properly. There was no golden age. I was there. In the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, 1961-1965, I learned standard English from two formidable teachers, Mrs. Jessie Perkins and Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, who kept at us relentlessly. I learned it, and several of my classmates did, but many did not. 

The blunt fact is that most people are not good at writing, and most people never have been. Speech is natural and learned naturally, but writing is a skill that requires extensive instruction and practice. It is not easy to get good at it, so most people don't. Before the internet we could entertain the belief that the skill was widely applied, because most of what we read was edited prose in newspapers, magazines, and books. But the internet, allowing anyone who has an online connection to publish their writing, has exposed how unskilled at writing most people are. Hell, I was a newspaper copy editor, and my daily work for more than forty years was to correct basic errors in grammar and usage in the work of college-educated professional journalists. 

Some in the golden-age crowd like to argue that linguists and permissive teachers dropped instruction in grammar in the 1960s and thereafter, leading to a collapse of literacy. But one reason to move away from the traditional schoolroom grammar instruction is, as I just told you, that it was not particularly effective. Another is that it was full of bogus rules and bad advice. Theodore M. Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, published in 1971, has 250 pages itemizing bad instruction in English. 

Online discussions of this sort inevitably degenerate into peevery, with some preening themselves on their expertise in punctuation and others on their I-fall-upon-the-thorns-of-life-I-bleed sensitivity to particular words or expressions they dislike. None of this edifies. 

English, people, still ticking along at 700-plus years, is in no imminent danger. Nice of you to offer to help it, but it can take care of itself.  


5 comments:

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

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  2. ‘It is a bad question for two main reasons. First, grammar, is not a lost art.‘ I totally agree with you on this topic, John, but I’m curious about that comma after ‘grammar’ in this quote. Was it intentional? If so, why?

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  3. "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary." -- James Nicoll

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  4. You fail to mention the deleterious effect of the failure to teach students cursive writing, which is a sure cause of the downfall of Western civilization. Since a part of my education was in France, where I actually used a steel pen dipped into an inkwell (1959-60), I am well qualified to speak of this, even though my early writing varied from the up-and-down style of the French to the regularly slanted style of the Palmer penmanship instruction of the US. I'm sure most of my moral failings result from this irregular and barely attended instruction.

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  5. Richard HershbergerMay 13, 2022 at 12:55 PM

    "Online discussions of this sort inevitably degenerate into peevery"

    You are, I suspect, too generous. While it is possible that the original complaint was about actual grammatical errors--a failure of a verb to agree in number with the corresponding noun, say--it is at least as likely that the complaint was peevery all along, about people not following some BS made-up pretend rule.

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