January 15, 2005


As an English professor, I walk the fine line between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. I'm a descriptivist, so if I were the only English teacher my students had to deal with, it wouldn't be such a big deal that I just ended that clause with a preposition. But the students leave my class and move on to a prof who studied in England and is much more prescriptive than I (or should I just go ahead and say "me"?). I don't care if they use contractions or end a sentence with the dreaded preposition, but he might.

Funny story: I once saw a student in my Swedish class insist to our teacher that you can't end a sentence with a preposition. She was horrified that you can do that quite comfortably in other languages and not feel the wrath of your 5th grade teacher.

Amritas has been writing about Ebonics for a few weeks now, and I've been meaning to jump into the conversation. Finally I couldn't stay away when I saw this, a quote from Labov with Amritas' interjections:

Linguists are building on sand until they can answer basic questions: what are the test-retest reliabilities of judgments of grammatical acceptability [that are essential to the Chomskyan enterprise -A]? Under what conditions do introspections match speech production? [That is, under what conditions do linguists' introspective judgments of grammaticality match what is actually being said by speakers? I can declare that a certain structure is 'wrong' in my office, but if millions use it without any impediment to understanding, then it is I who am wrong. -A]

We say things all the time that are completely comprehensible but grammatically wrong. So what makes them "wrong" if we can understand them? Why do I bother pointing out all the places my students need the past perfect tense in their narrative essays when nine times out of ten it makes no difference for understanding the story? Why is it like fingernails on a chalkboard to me when my students use the wrong relative pronoun, when no meaning at all is lost? Why do I even bother reminding them that "between you and me, he is taller than I"?

One of my German friends heard something on the TV that she was convinced was wrong. She was flabbergasted to learn that "It is I" is correct. I'm sure she's never heard it before. Another German was mad to learn that "Me and my husband are going on vacation", though common, is incorrect. They don't hear the prescriptive versions very often.

So what's a girl to do? For now, my strategy has been to refresh my students' memories on the prescriptive versions, all the while with the caveat that languages change and that someday "It is I" will likely be considered wrong since virtually no one will be saying it. But for now they have to sit on the cusp of language change, like it or not.

Posted by: Sarah at 03:24 AM | Comments (5) | Add Comment
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1 Teach them correct English. It will help them to learn other languages more easily, and they'll feel more at home reading people like VDH and WFB.

Posted by: Mike at January 15, 2005 08:00 AM (FP9A9)

2 I used to think the Catholic Church needed to change it's beliefs to be more in sync with the age. The liberals all talk about the Constitution as a living, breathing document to change with the times. I disagree with both premises today because I now can see what that damage inflicted by not appreciating or following old rules or laws. This is also the same reason why I don't support state sponsored homosexual marriage. How would this evolve 30 years down the road? Same goes for language/word usage. Unintended consequences.

Posted by: Toni at January 15, 2005 09:26 AM (VshLz)

3 [But the students leave my class and move on to a prof who studied in England and is much more prescriptive than I (or should I just go ahead and say "me"?)] Well, in this case I would just add the "am" after than I. It really bugs me to hear someone use I and me incorrectly. I have no degrees, it just grates on my ears. There are several other things that bug me a lot lately, like the always present tense used in local and cable news. IF it happened in the past, and anything in the news did, unless it is an ongoing situation, it is in the past and past tense is really easier to use. I expect any day now to hear "like, he goes....then I go" on the news!

Posted by: Ruth H at January 15, 2005 12:40 PM (yz00j)

4 MISS ELLA FANNING was my 8th grade English teacher. She taught my brother, five years prior to my being in her class. Indeed, she taught Wm. Bradford's children when they were at sea on the Mayflower! We diagrammed every sentence written in modern, middle, and ye olde English up to the last sentence written on May 31, 1965. (Consider the above a slight hyperbole.) She did have one (perhaps two) quirk: She expected us to do our work "quicklike". And whom everyone else labelled the "captain", she called the "cheerleader", while the other cheerleaders were "cheerers". I have absolutely no college-level English; on a lark, however, I took the ACT some five years ago, and scored 36 on its English section. Teach them prescriptive English. They deserve the same break Miss Fanning gave me lo those many years ago. Grace and peace, Jim Shawley

Posted by: Jim Shawley at January 15, 2005 03:06 PM (aO0V3)

5 Introduce such people to "The Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson.

Posted by: Jason at January 15, 2005 03:16 PM (RBcGc)

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