On a summer day in my fourth year in this world, I was holding my grandmother’s hand as we walked along a country road. When the neighbors’ farmhouse came into sight, my grandmother said, “It looks like the Hylands ain’t at home.”
I yanked my grandmother’s hand. “It looks like the Hylands are not at home,” said I. No swatter of her grandchildren (her five sons had been a different matter), my grandmother laughed, and laughed, and recalled the incident so often that it became a part of my family’s lore. It was generally believed that I would grow up to be an English teacher.
By the time I reached junior high school, my English teacher destiny seemed pretty unlikely. I hated English, particularly grammar. Gerunds and modifiers, predicate nominatives, transitive and intransitive verbs were a mystery to my messy, nonanalytical mind.
Yet I loved stories, and spent half of my playtime with my nose in a book. What’s more, my messy mind could put words together in amusing and entertaining and grammatically correct essays and stories: a short story that I wrote for eighth-grade English, “Elvis Presley and the Martians,” was published, thanks to my grandfather, in the Wall Lake, Iowa, weekly newspaper, the Blade, and reprinted in Gordon Gammack’s daily column in the Des Moines Tribune.
This ambivalence continued through my high school English courses, which served up equal portions of grammar and literature: I got C’s on grammar tests and A’s on written work. As an English major in college and a graduate student of English and American literature, I managed to avoid grammar courses altogether because, thanks to lots of reading and practice, my writing was mostly free of grammar errors and was judged by my professors to be good, even very good. On several occasions, I was able to use stylistic eloquence to distract attention from inadequate scholarship or faulty reasoning.
Armed with a master’s degree in English, I embarked on, of all things, a career as a college English teacher. As a journeyman instructor, I taught composition classes in which the mandated grammar review not only bored the daylights out of me and my students but also seemed to make their writing more difficult.
They had to think about things that they used to take for granted.
Writers who in speaking and in their previous writing had used predicate nominatives and indirect objects easily and coherently, if not always grammatically, now were struggling to identify these entities and to use them “correctly” in their writing. Instead of improving my students’ writing, these grammar exercises seemed to stifle invention and promote writer’s block.
Eventually, I realized that “grammar” has two different meanings. Linguistics scholars use the word to denote the many ways that speakers and writers arrange words to express complete thoughts, that is, to speak and write sentences. We learn these patterns as children by unconsciously imitating the patterns of the older people we live with.
The most influential of the people I grew up with was my mother, who had spent four years in the high school classes of the kind of authoritarian grammarian, usually female, that no high school in those days was without, a formidable figure for whom “ain’t” was not a word and the double negative was perilously close to total depravity. Thus I grew up speaking and writing a dialect similar to what I later learned is called Standard English, the dialect of written English and of educated speakers. There were some deviations from the “correct”: My mother would say, “It’s me,” rather than the more proper “It is I,” but never in the hearing of Miss Sifford, her grammar teacher.
Which brings me to the other kind of grammar, the kind I didn’t like: “descriptive/prescriptive” grammar, which uses terms like “predicate nominative” and “gerund” and “dangling modifier” to describe how the first kind of grammar works and, often, how the first kind of grammar is used incorrectly, is even “bad.”
In a graduate course in the history of the English language, I learned to avoid moral judgment of people who spoke non-Standard dialects; there is no such thing as “bad” English, only “inappropriate-for-the-intended-audience” English. I also learned about the arbitrary nature of many grammar rules. The rule against double negatives, for example, is often justified by saying that the negatives cancel one another out, as though a sentence were a mathematical equation. I learned that the French use the double negative with abandon and suffer no ill consequences, their political instability probably the effect of nongrammatical causes, while Middle English featured double and even triple negatives: Chaucer tells us that the Knight nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde, using a triple negative to assure us that the Knight was a really good guy.
English grammar, along with, God help us, English spelling, wasn’t standardized until the 1700s, when English was replacing Latin as the language of learning and literature and when influential people, writers and readers, decided that, since Latin had a lot of rules, English needed a lot of rules, too.
So here I was, imposing some 18th-century grammarians’ notions of correctness and Miss Sifford’s notions of grammatical morality on my students, making their writing lives more difficult than they needed to be.
In time, I discovered that my students, like me, made the same half-dozen or so grammar errors over and over again and that, like me, they could skip the grammar exercises, could learn how to recognize their bad habits and could edit them out of the second or third draft of their writing, letting the creative juices flow in the early drafts without worrying about correctness (I usually added a warning about the dire consequences of handing in a first draft). I also began to give equal weight in grading to form and content (except for students who, having failed to break their non-Standard grammar habits after 12 weeks of coaching, were in danger of failing the course).
Like most of my colleagues, I talked about correctness not as a moral issue but as a matter of audience expectation; your audience expects you as an educated writer to use Standard English. If you don’t, you’ll damage your credibility; you won’t sell the house or the car or your case with your professor or with a jury because your audience will think you’re a dummy.
In the years of teaching that followed, I got satisfactory feedback from students and also from the state, which continued to issue me a paycheck. I began to regard my system as one that was fundamentally and comprehensively true, as people in the middle of their lives tend to feel about a lot of things.
When asked by my fellow mid-lifers why today’s young people can’t write, I would tell them that in organization and in topic development, that is, in supporting a general statement with specific examples, they did pretty well, but that many of them couldn’t recognize and correct the grammar errors in their writing, which if their writing is “college-level,” they should be able to do. I attributed this to overworked high school English teachers who, burdened with two or three times the student load we college instructors bore, were forced to neglect grammar and teach organization and support. Faced with the same choice, I’d probably do the same thing.
Then I retired, which changed everything, as retirement tends to do. One of the more gradual changes came about because the state was no longer paying me to correct people’s grammar. Without professional and financial incentives, I began to read other people’s writing less critically, especially on social media. I began to see, beneath the misused apostrophes and run-on sentences, and to hear, above the sound of fingernails scraping across a blackboard or Miss Sifford’s voice shouting down from my superego, a strong and genuine desire to communicate, to express, to find words for feelings, to connect.
As a writer, I know this desire well, and I know how gratifying its fulfillment can be; in journals and newspapers, I’ve been able to connect with thousands of people. However, I’ve been able to make these connections because I write in Standard English (I was going to begin that sentence with “But,” a conjunction, but my inner Miss Sifford told me not to). I’ve begun to ask myself whether the human need to connect should be denied to people who don’t know the proper use of apostrophes or of the very different meanings of their, there and they’re? Is Standard English not an elitist dialect, a symptom of the privilege that is seen to be the source or symptom of so much injustice?
Questions to be asked, especially by my academic colleagues who are concerned about elitism and privilege and social injustice. I don’t know the answers to these questions and probably don’t need to, at least professionally, being but a retired teacher. Personally, I don’t judge my social media correspondents on their grammar, which is often non-Standard. Thanks to social media, we are in a period of great linguistic creativity (or moral decline, as Miss Sifford would say). The apostrophe seems to be going the way of the brontosaurus. Pronoun case seems to be going the same way, especially in compound constructions, in which “me” is seen by a growing number of writers to be always incorrect. Maybe the last of the English language’s pesky inflections are on their way out, which, just between you and I (aarrrgghhh!), might be a good thing. Kood fonetik speling bee nekst?
Let freedom ring! Let connections, not corrections, be made! Let those of you who are writing teachers continue to tell your students that many of their audiences will expect them to use Standard English, but let us all respond to any and all attempts to connect to other human beings on their merits, not their grammar.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.