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The War Against Grammar

At Earl Nelson’s recommendation I secured a copy of The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy. After an hour or so in its company, I am here to recommend it to you. Here is a quotation he includes in the final chapter that sums up the practical use of the disciplines and rules of grammar – and right in the middle the writer (Danielle Allen) drops a hint as to why grammar is so much more than usage:

Learning grammar taught me how to think–to pay attention to the neat and precise relationships between things, to look for subtle differences, to grapple with complexity. I always felt as if a world of logic resided in my grammar lessons, and when I got to high school English classes, even classes on novels, plays, and short stories, I was leaps and bounds ahead of students who had never had the same chance to study grammar.

First, because I am in the process of helping develop a pre-school for the “disadvantaged” west side of Charlotte, and because the “anti-prescriptivists” commonly argue that standard grammar is a white supremacist imposition, I want to point out that Danielle is an African-American who graduated SCL from Princeton, has masters and doctoral degrees from Cambridge and Harvard, and has received all manner of awards for her work.

But did you notice that key clause in the middle of her quotation? “A world of logic resided in my grammar lessons.” Grammar is excellent preparation for logic and vice versa. Both are tools of thinking! Their relationship is interactive and mutually supportive. To use poor grammar is to have an argument with yourself, something we shouldn’t do in public without a high purpose.

People coming to America and people for whom standard English is not their common idiom need to learn standard English grammar and vocabulary because it gives them access to the entire corpus of writings written in standard English. Those multi-culturalists who argue that these children should not be “compelled” to learn standard English (though for some reason they think it just that they be compelled to attend school) are causing the very thing they claim to oppose: alienation and exclusion. Every country in the world seems to see the practical value of standard English except the US. If I were a white supremacist, I would pour my resources into backing these naive mult-culturalists and preventing minority students from disadvantaged communities from learning standard English. What a simple way to “keep them down.”

One of the effective proponents of anti-prescriptivism is Steven Pinker who wrote The Language Instinct. Mulroy addresses Pinker’s arguments head on in a chapter called The Scandal of Prescriptivism: “My problem with Pinker’s influential presentation is one of emphasis, not principle,” he says. “He resolves every issue in favor of spontaneous usage, thsu giving the impression that all conscious efforts to speak or write “correctly” are vain and pretentious… In fact, writing well involves the conscious mastery of countless prescriptions, as Pinker’s own text constantly demonstrates.”

In this series of posts, I express a position perhaps even more assertive than Mulroy’s. I believe that standard English is a prudential, long-term intermingling of nature and convention, the two interacting and dancing together, sometimes gracefully and sometimes awkwardly, to enable us to build human communities capable of cooperation and relationships through the miracle of language. The two must, however, dance together. Language is dynamic.

As an aside, that is why, to truly understand language, students need to study Latin and classical Greek. These are the only options they have by which they can see the life of a language as if in a biography – from their Indo-European beginnings to the “death” of Latin in the late Middle ages (though of course it still survives on life support in the Vatican and elsewhere).

But back to the point: nature and convention must respect each other. Those who want language to be static on the notion that they have discovered the perfect expression of the nature of language have missed that nature altogether, for its nature is relational and dynamic. On the other hand, those who want or believe language to be purely conventional, based entirely on usage, have unmoored their own minds, for language does have a nature, bound to both logic (being) and rhetoric (relations). Language/grammar arises from the language instinct, which is bound to the nature of how we think. And we think with subjects and predicates. Always. Language is neither absolute nor relative, but, like everything else in the living world, it is foundationalist: it lives relatively on an absolute foundation. Maybe it would be better to say, language is both absolute and relative!

Thus we must teach grammar and we must teach it well. Get this book!

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