There’s a grammar war in my brain

The Gist:

  • There are pedants and anti-pedants.
  • I don’t know which one I am.
  • I see value in both.
  • It makes being an English teacher difficult.

The Whole Story:

One of my favorite courses in college was Traditional and Non-Traditional Grammars with Professor Gerry Balls. I like thinking about how words work. Semantics, grammar and all the conventions that go along make up the calculus of language.

This is why I’ve been watching closely as discussion has been brewing about David Foster Wallace acolyte Amy McDaniel’s posting of the text of a worksheet from Wallace’s class. Saturday, my brain moved more with Chris Potts’ announcement of a challenge to McDaniel’s post by Jason Kottke who scored a 0 / 10 on Wallace’s quiz:

Kottke is a thoughtful, creative English prose stylist, and Wallace thought that these questions were basic ones that should be taught in any undergraduate class. Kottke seems to think the problem lies with him. I take a different view: this test is useless.

Here’s where I step back. I don’t know where I stand on this issue. I’ve read Wallace and Safire for years. My grandparents wouldn’t stand a story about “me and him” at the dinner table. I like it when my students ask if they may go to the bathroom.

But it makes me feel false and a little dirty.

In reality, I’m not a pedant.

Sure, I have pedantic tendencies, but it hurts to hold those ideas in hand with the knowledge we speak and write a living language. It’s alive and changing faster than I can follow given the accelerant of the ease of communication.

More than once, I’ve paused when a student’s sentence ended with a preposition. Do I push him to the right to walk the path of my grandparents, or do I make Professor Balls proud and accept the kid’s disregard for an ancient and archaic rule?

Thinking of grammar as the calculus of language offers me a sense of security and set way to think and talk about the world. It also prevents me from speaking the same language as those we’ll be leaving the world to. I’m not sure which one I value most.

In her explanation of the thinking behind the quiz, McDaniel writes, “Probably the most important reason is to avoid ambiguity. We want to make our meaning clear.” I can get behind that. I’m just not sure rules get us there.

One thought on “There’s a grammar war in my brain

  1. Different situations call for various levels of formality in writing. A dissertation and an SMS message aren’t held to the same standard. While much of this is a question of voice, it can also be one of grammar. Many of the arbitrary “rules” of English grammar force the writer into sentence constructions that elevate the formality of the writing. There are cases where grammar mistakes can lend readability, interest, and style to one’s writing.

    It is important, though, that the writer be equipped to make these decisions. If you’re using the wrong form of their/there on purpose, that’s one thing. If you don’t know any better, it’s something else entirely.

    Like most things, balance is warranted. If we dwell so much on the rules that we never get around to using them to write interesting things, we’ve gone too far. Finding that line is the key, and it’s going to be in a different place for each person.

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