Grammar, a great equaliser

A recent article on The Conversation website has taken issue with teaching grammar. It shows up prescriptivist linguistics which takes upon itself to police the way we speak and write, castigating us for making mistakes. For example, I recently heard two young people arguing and one of them was shouting at the other: ‘I wish I went yesterday’. Of course, he should have said ‘I wish I had gone…’. That’s the grammatically correct way, as any (prescriptivist) linguist would know.The points in the article are very well made, indeed. I agree with the author. But I agree as a linguist, after all, I teach about pitfalls of prescriptivism. In this blogs I want to add a social view, so to say.  I do think we should teach children grammar and tell them about ‘correct English’, even though, yes, I do understand how loaded and contested this phrase is. I agree for ideological reasons.

Let me start with a question, which in my view underpins the whole debate. Why do we discuss the merits of  teaching grammar using impeccable grammar?  The article author, myself and a legion of others do (or at least try to) write in  ‘perfect English’. And here is an answer: it is written like that, because it  underscores the credibility of the author, the authority with which she writes. It’s unthinkable to imagine that I would write something like:

It wouldn’t of been published.

Incidentally, the automatic spell-check in my word processor wanted to correct ‘of’ to ‘have’. But why?  Well, it took me just a few seconds to see why. It’s because as we, linguists debate prescriptivism, people ‘out there’ don’t. Within the few seconds, I found an article on not tolerating poor grammar in business, a report on financial implications of poor grammar, and an article from a CEO why she won’t hire people with poor grammar.  I am afraid, it’s business 1, linguistics 0. We, linguists, can debate it till we’re blue in the face, arguing that it doesn’t really make sense to stigmatise ‘poor grammar’, which is ideological, oppressive, divisive, but if, say, my children’s chances for good employment can be increased by ‘good grammar’, gosh, they’d better know what a subjunctive is!

When I came to this country, I spoke with a very heavy Polish accent. People could sense a foreigner 5 miles up the wind. And, believe me, it was a problem. But the problem always got minuscule when people understood that I actually spoke ‘good English’. Correct conditionals, subjunctives, inversions, infinitives, you name it, I knew it and I used it. I was told, mostly with astonishment, how good my grammar was (not my English – my grammar). Did it matter? Oh yes, you’d better believe it!

And here lies the problem. I was a young man from Eastern Europe (from outer space, as I was once told), a foreigner, but I spoke ‘better English’ that most people I spoke to. And how I spoke changed people’s perceptions of me. Did I like it? Of course not! It makes no sense at all! I would have preferred to be perceived as someone knowledgeable, professional, or simply nice. But it was the way I spoke that made the crucial difference.

As people protest against bothering kids with grammar, invariably in ‘perfect English’, I wish they remembered those who have not had the opportunity to learn their ‘perfect English’ at home.  For some of the kids whom we shall not teach grammar, will learn how to speak ‘proper English’ at home. Their well-educated parents will speak ‘properly’ (not ‘proper’). They will not use the singular number in ‘There are cars.’, they will understand the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’.  And they will never be the joke of the staff at universities where they will be said to be ignorant or illiterate. Their emails will not be laughed at when they fail to tell the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’. They are all real examples.

No, this will be reserved for those less fortunate. However classist, ideologically unpalatable it all might be, their grammar will put them out of the job market, as a posh prat (do forgive) whose English could be put into a grammar book, will scoff at how they write. I would prefer to give those kids a chance. A chance never to put an apostrophe to change a noun in singular into plural.

As we laugh at the subjunctive or the split infinitive (who, after all, is against ‘to boldly go’?!), let us remember that they are by far not the only grammatical errors children (and not only children) make.  How we teach grammar, what we teach, is a matter for another and a very important debate. But the starting point must, in my view, be that we actually do teach grammar Grammar, like education, is a great equaliser.


4 April – This a modified version of the post. A brief discussion with Jane Hodson (in the comments under her text) made it clear that we agreed much more than it had appeared before. I therefore removed the polemical bits, but also added a bit.

Incidentally, yesterday I was listening to a member of the Queen’s English Society on Radio 2, who was defending the correct use of apostrophes (and the activities of the ‘Apostrophe Vigilante’), happily using singular forms instead of plural. So, no, it’s not ‘There’s many people.”, it’s “There are many people”. I give this example fully understanding that it somewhat undermines what I have written above. No, I don’t like expressions such as ‘Queen’s English’ and I would like children not to be judged by their grammar. At the moment, however, it’s better to learn how to use  the damned apostrophes or the perfect infinitive.



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