Tuesday, October 10, 2006

bad grammar alley

This is something I'd like to write more about, but I have to get it down right. It's a sensitive subject, so I have to experiment with ways of saying it. I've written a little about it, but haven't gotten it quite right yet.

Basically, there is a huge misunderstanding in the world about language. It is this: if you educate people enough, they'll get their grammar right. It's true for some of the people some of the time. But it's not true for eveeryone. In my classroom, everyone wants standard grammar. We define it, we give it to them, we teach them why it is what it is, and we try to do all this well. Around us, people in the academy are teaching people in their disciplines, and those people are learning to speak and write like educated people- not like whatever they were doing before. So it's natural to think that all the world is on the same path. But they're not.

Linguists have been pretty good about presenting dialects without judgement. For example, they might say that might could is associated with a southern dialect, and not say whether that's good or bad, whether a person might want to avoid it, or pick it up, and in what circumstances. Purely regional dialects are just that: if you lived in Tennessee, you probably would want to pick it up, but after living a few years in Chicago, you'd let it go again. This is a natural process of assimilation and association- you want to sound like the people around you, and you don't want to be associated with things (like the South) when you don't know how the people you are talking to might be perceiving those things. This is one thing when we're talking about regions- but there are many other dialects cutting through our culture, and two of them are associated with standard grammar. One of them more or less embraces it; it goes by the maxim that when in formal situations, one should stick with standard grammar as one knows it. Fair enough. But the other says that standard grammar is to be avoided in favor of structures like we was, ain't, and I seen...which are clearly and unambiguously non-standard.

My point is that the speakers of this dialect already know this. No amount of education is going to change their actions, since they don't spring from not knowing standard grammar.

The best explanation for this came from someone whose name I've forgotten; I'd love to find this quote. Basically, he said, look, we were all there in second grade when the teacher told us what was right and what was wrong. We all heard her. She laid it right on the table. And the fact is, some of us did what she wanted, and some of us waited until we we were free to do as we pleased. (and some of us became the teacher- but that's another story)...

The world is full of people who would probably use correct (standard) grammar if they knew it, and sometimes teaching them works; they'll learn it, and use better (more standard) grammar from then on. And, in an academic environment, people who are not paying attention may pick some of it up without even trying. It may be the majority that likes standard grammar, seeks it and values it- and it would have to stay this way, for these ideas of "standard" to continue. The standard machine has its own momentum, and that's good, because somebody has to keep defining it and backing it up with facts- and this puts food on our table, I might add. But not everyone is in the same game. Nonstandard dialects are alive and well, and show remarkable vigor in spite of taking a continuing beating from English teachers in every classroom. I'd like to do a study of ain't alone- as it kind of symbolizes this defiance, willingness to break a rule and flaunt it. How are you going to educate someone out of doing that?

Often the judgement that brands nonstandard as uneducated or undesirable (this second one does not generally come from linguists, but these are linked nevertheless)- is unspoken. One of your parents may have been the last person, besides maybe that second grade teacher, to actually tell you that they expect you to use a high standard in your speech; it's personal, and people outside your family are not likely to criticize you or judge you publicly on such a personal thing. I think that one reason it's good to keep it this way is that speech is ultimately a personal choice- we identify with groups by virtue of which dialects we use- and by this choice we have often demonstrated that some things are more important than being "standard" in certain environments. The assumption that we would all follow the rules, if we just knew them, is misguided, for a significant population. Getting to the bottom of why we do what we do, how we do it, and how we've come to have some misconceptions about it (I'm not accusing linguists here) is the topic of my work, if I can get to it.

I should add, just as an aside, that in spite of the reverence of the majority of the population for the concept of "standard," it's really quite elusive, changing, evolving, shadowy, not agreed upon by everyone in the least. It's a slippery little devil, a live fish in the garbage disposal, so to speak. But that's another story too. Stay tuned...

By the way, I've written about this before, and on looking back, am disappointed now to see that I haven't really moved far off of my soapbox. The "work" I alluded to is here; but connecting it to a larger collection of dialect-related writing is really what I'm after here. Blogging about it gets it back on the table- where can I look for leads? Where can I take this argument? How can I integrate it into what I've already written? What next? These few days between classes, as the leaves fall, is when I might be able to stir the pot, get myself an agenda for the coming winter. I can write, if I'm inspired. I can do research too. While I'm walking back from the pool, after I've combed my hair, but before I get to the Japanese garden.


At 6:33 AM, Blogger Peggy said...

My pet hate when it comes to grammar: "Where is he at?" Is it dialect or a really annoying person ignoring the fact that sentences shouldn't end in a preposition.

At 9:39 PM, Blogger tom said...

Dear Peggy- there are two things that are annoying about the expression: "Where is he at," which is commonly heard in this area, by the way. The first is a kind of traditional grammar rule that you mentioned- but, you have to admit, this rule is kept more often in the UK than it is here (see joke below)...in fact, it is also the subject of this old old story about Winston Churchill: "Seems Churchill made a speech in which - horrors! - he ended a particular sentence with a preposition, which in those days (and when you and I were grade-school age a few years later, too) was a linguistic travesty. For this he was taken to task in a letter he received from a dowager school teacher, who ended by accusing him of a lack of conversance with the English language. Reportedly, he replied in writing and apologized for the peccadillo, but took umbrage at the more generalized accusation, saying something like his being a poor grammarian was an accusation 'up with which I shall not put!'"...this version of which comes from Joseph O'Bryan.

The second annying thing about the expression is that the at in "Where is he at" is completely unnecessary, since where itself is prepositional, so it's as if the (midwest?) dialect speaker has added an entirely unnecessary word, just to make the traditionalist (or the British speaker) angry.

Now I mention that this makes the British angry because it's well-known that they do hold this foolish destruction of the English language against us Americans. Here is the joke I referred to above:

An American approaches a Londoner one day and says, "Excuse me, sir, can you tell me which street Buckingham Palace is on?" The Londoner says "Pardon me?" and the American repeats. Finally the Londoner says, "Sir, in England we do not end sentences with prepositions." So the American says,
"Then, excuse me, can you tell me which street Buckingham Palace is on you jerk?"


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