Mikitish: Why we write right

“What we say goes” is, as far as I’m concerned, a beautiful title for a book about linguistics. And as the book is a set of interviews with Noam Chomsky, it might have actually been a book about such. Unfortunately, it is typically Chomskyian mound of political sophistry instead, as I found out a few days ago when I examined it at Labyrinth.

But forget the book. It’s old (from way back in 2007) and, in any case, not the point. I care about the title, for it aptly describes, at least from a linguist’s perspective, what grammar is — the rules of a language as speakers speak it. To a linguist, a structure like “There’s three people” or “Jim and me spoke” is perfectly grammatical, whatever an old textbook may say.

In academia, this definition of grammar is both reasonable and valuable. After all, before English was ever written, the only grammar that existed was the de facto rules of the language spoken, as is yet the case with the majority of the world’s languages. The written language was, at first, merely an imitation of the spoken. Writing is a mnemonic device which conjures language — it is not language in itself. Therefore, the mnemonic system has its own rules, which may or may not reflect the language to which it refers. Old spellings once reflected sounds, but now only serve to remind readers of lexical items by learned association. Punctuation is a tool to facilitate reading as much as it is a reflection of the rhythms and silences of speech.

Implicit in this linguistic delineation of grammar is the important notion that all language is adequate — indeed, equally adequate. All dialects, from rustic to urbane, can communicate, equally well, all the information that a speech community wishes and needs.

But outside the university, this view of grammar and language, one which sets speech quite apart from writing, is not accepted. Dialectal speech is often considered inferior, “ungrammatical” speech; unique forms of speech are not preserved and fostered but rather stamped out in the name of “education.”

Perhaps, one day, this may change. But this day is not today. For the time being, therefore, we have to learn to write right.

This is true even though it has become commonplace to break the rules. Advertisements and notices regularly confuse “fewer” and “less”, and too often is the object of the preposition written as a subject (“between you and I”). American schools seem to have all but stopped teaching grammar — I learned no grammar at all in elementary school, just a smidgen in sixth grade, and was then on my own. Still, these efforts to remove descriptive grammar’s place in American intellectual life have failed thus far. High school English teachers will not beat a parley with students over misplaced modifiers, no matter how checkered the students’ educational past.

I love grammar and style and punctuation, and so have been able to avoid the scourge of the red pen. I, in my acquiescence, do serve to further the current divide between modern language and writing. I reinforce the misguided proposition that “ain’t” is “wrong,” that “they” is never singular, and that “whom” is still a legitimate part of the English language. But what else can I do? Look ignorant? Write “wrong”?

This is why the ignorance of grammar damages students. Not because they communicate worse, but rather because people think they communicate worse. All languages are adequate, but not all are accepted.

This is true even in pre-literate speech communities. Certain speakers are considered eloquent, and others are said to speak poorly. Different types of speech are reserved for different social interactions. Even if the underlying assumptions behind these behaviors and attitudes are unfounded, they seem to be natural.

It will be a while then before these assumptions disappear from our own speech community — even with the knowledge that we have, even equipped with the linguist’s view of language. Perhaps we will never manage.

And that is why, until then, we must follow the textbooks and musty grammars, the dictionaries and guides to usage. We must, for better or for worse, write … correctly.