I’m not the only grammatical voice in the wilderness

No one who has visited this blog recently can have missed my grumbling about public school teachers who, when cut adrift from their rigid curriculum, show that they do not understand either grammar or spelling — nor does their ignorance seem to bother them. Although I find their intellectual ignorance and apathy horrific, I have to admit that they’re not alone. Many consider me old-fashioned, at best, and pedantic, at worst, because I have such absolute faith in old-fashioned grammar and spelling. Certainly, in the rush-rush world of blogging, I make my fair share of mistakes, but they never arise from ignorance. They’re a sad combination of typos and bad-proofreading. Nothing to boast about, I’m afraid, but when I do sit down and proofread, I at least have enough knowledge to recognize what I’ve done wrong and to correct it.

I can trace my faith in pure grammar and spelling to three sources. First, my father, who learned English when he served with the RAF during World War II. When he entered the RAF, he was a 19 year old who spoke his native German (Hochdeutsch and Berlinerdeutsch), a smattering of Yiddish, and some half Biblical, half Israeli Hebrew. When he left the RAF, he was a man who had found the great love of his life — the English language — and it was a love that never waned. With that kind of passion as the bass beat to my life, it’s small wonder that, while lack my Dad’s astonishing technical knowledge about English, I have a near perfect ear for what classically correct English sounds like.

Second, I met Jane Austen (so to speak) when I was 14 and considered her my friend for life. No one can read her writing without developing a vast appreciation for English prose. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” In one sentence, one almost-dry, grammatically perfect sentence, Jane Austen sums up a whole world view for us. There’s nothing labored here, nothing coy, nothing mannered. Just neat prose providing a perfect runway for gentle social satire. How can one not take language seriously after this?

Third, I became a lawyer. Though you wouldn’t believe it considering how badly many lawyers write, good writing matters in the legal world. It matters because so many business disputes have their source in mangled correspondence and ambiguous agreements. It matters because judges and their clerks spend most of their waking hours plowing through ill-written, often incomprehensible briefs. I’ve always flattered myself that, even if they don’t agree with my legal arguments, the clerks and judges find refreshing my lucid and logical prose. And lastly, it matters because I too have suffered, whether reading (and trying to challenge) a marginally literate opposing counsel’s outpourings, or seeking legal authority in turgid, pompous, mind-numbing legal decisions. Decent writing really stands out under those circumstances.

I’ve now found a fourth reason to value classic grammar and writing: Theodore Dalrymple’s article taking to task the school of thought that holds that humans have the innate ability, not merely to communicate, but to communicate at full capacity all parts of their emotional and intellectual lives, regardless of their exposure to structured language skills. Dalrymple’s conclusion about formal language skills precisely reflect my own conclusions: “With a very limited vocabulary, it is impossible to make, or at least to express, important distinctions and to examine any question with conceptual care.”

Well, yes, of course. It surprises me that there’s any question about this fact at all. What Dalrymple is describing is the linguistic equivalent of color-blindness or tone deafness. You’re never going to find someone tone deaf who will rhapsodize (or even care about) Beethoven, and a color-blind person would be a poor choice for your interior designer. Whole visual or auditory concepts exist beyond their intellectual range. The same has to hold true for people who have never developed their vocabularies beyond the minimum required for daily living. Can one truly argue that mastering “I’ll have a pound of butter” prepares one to grasp the social dimensions and comic doings that appear in the single Jane Austen sentence I quoted above?

This sounds as if I’m simply arguing that people should have good vocabularies, but I’m really going beyond that. I think grammar is equally important for developing logical thought. I’ve often discovered that, when I’m not sure what my argument in a case should be, my grammar becomes muddy and passive. If I untangle my grammar, I’ll find my core argument — and frequently abandon it, since this clarity reveals that it was a bad argument in the first place. In any event, who can forgot those wonderful dangling modifier sentences we oldsters still learned in high school. I still giggle when I think about the “The girl watched the gull in the red bathing suit.” Funny, yes, until you get a whole lawsuit revolving around this type of incoherent writing.

Dalrymple wraps it all up for me in three paragraphs that take on educators’ criminally passive approach to spelling, the growing number of people with marginal vocabularies, and the anti-class consciousness of modern linguists — one that assures that the lower classes stay in their low place:

A teacher in a state school gave his daughter a list of spellings to learn as homework, and my friend noticed that three out of ten of them were wrong. He went to the principal to complain, but she looked at the list and asked, “So what? You can tell what the words are supposed to mean.” The test for her was not whether the spellings were correct but whether they were understandable. So much for the hobgoblins of contemporary schoolmarms.

The contrast between a felt and lived reality—in this case, [Steven] Pinker’s need to speak and write standard English because of its superior ability to express complex ideas—and the denial of it, perhaps in order to assert something original and striking, is characteristic of an intellectual climate in which the destruction of moral and social distinctions is proof of the very best intentions.

Pinker’s grammatical latitudinarianism, when educationists like the principal of my friend’s daughter’s school take it seriously, has the practical effect of encouraging those born in the lower reaches of society to remain there, to enclose them in the mental world of their particular milieu. Of course, this is perfectly all right if you also believe that all stations in life are equally good and desirable and that there is nothing to be said for articulate reflection upon human existence. In other words, grammatical latitudinarianism is the natural ideological ally of moral and cultural relativism.

This essay is as good a place as any to wrap up with a story some of you have read here before. It’s why I hate unions and why I hate Ebonics. Back in the mid-1970s, my father, who belonged to the NEA, attended a local meeting that was concerned with bilingual education, both in Spanish and what was than called “black English.” My father was no coward, and he stood up and said that this was a terrible idea, since it went against the whole purpose of an English language education. He was rudely, and threateningly, booed down. Only one person rose to defend him, a very old African American teacher. “You’d better listen to Mr. Bookworm,” she said. “If our children don’t learn to speak English, they will never get out of the ghetto.” They booed her down too.

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15 Responses

  1. Bravo!

  2. Pursuant to the excellent point about moral/cultural relativism: a new book by Paul Boghossian takes on the debate about all points of view being equally valid in ‘Fear of Knowledge’, Oxford University Press – my wish list just increased!

  3. *NEWS FLASH* (apparently necessary for those who think they’re the first to alight upon the razor’s discrimination between language codification and use)

    The blood runs in several directions. First, there’s the bring-you-to-your-knees gratitude that many hearts feel, when the stern logic of grammatical compliance shepherds an unformed notion into an idea or image that others can comprehend. And then there’s the human voice, when reproduced in all of its rhythms and inflections on the printed page. The imitation of which is a literary trick that authors have embraced since Chaucer (who owned 50 books!) to goose grammatical compliance into their downy bed. And thirdly, in looking for an umpire to call the shots on the field of appropriate language use, all we can depend on are the calls made by our most eloquent authors, who often enough imbibe in grammar to find the nitrous oxide.

  4. Greg, I almost understan what you’re saying (I think). Regarding artists who bring something more to writing than what was there before, I inevitably reflect on my high school English teacher’s words of wisdom: Just as Picasso studied traditional drafting first, so too did T.S. Eliot and John Dos Pasos first learn grammar. It’s art if you find new pathways; it’s usually ignorance if you know nothing in the first place.

  5. All I got was the goose. That is it.

  6. I hear what you’re saying, Book. The problem isn’t that we kowtow to Chaucer’s flights of language innovation, but to a bureaucrat’s. Which — God help me — I’d rather die than submit to that kind of thought control.

  7. Bookworm is right. Those who break rules to expand the use of language must first understand the rules they are breaking. If they do not, they have not earned the right to push language in fresh, new directions. She is also right in recognizing that typos do not rise from ingorance but from dyslexic fingers and a failure to proofread one’s writing. Being rushed is not the same as not knowing how to spell and not caring. The logic part rings true also. Great post!

  8. (helenl wrote): “Those who break rules to expand the use of language must first understand the rules they are breaking.”

    Excuse my phobia (I do have one) but I hope we are not referring to our arbiters of public thought and taste (?) in the media! (Of course, we should be!)

  9. What an amazing family history you have, Book. I hope that there is a family chronicler for the sake of your children. I tend to have a looser view of language: language, like life, evolves. Fads like ebonics (or Teddy Roosevelt’s effort to change the rules of spelling) come and go, but only the practical changes survive the tests of time. I hate to say it, but even someone like Jesse Jackson has taught me a lot about listening to the rhythms of what I put down in writing. Text messaging may represent an abomination of spelling, but some of it is really quite creative and appropriate to the medium, just as Morse Code developed its own rules in its day. That being said, I agree that schools need to focus on the basic rules rather than huffing and puffing to stay up with the trends.

  10. Please don’t forget that our language is also used to convey complicated scientific, technical, and medical information. Standards must be maintained.

  11. jg, I meant in creative writing: poetry, short stories, novels, prose poems, creative non-fiction, biographies, memoirs, and any hybid thereof.

  12. Hybrid has an “r.” Yes, it does.

  13. BW: “I inevitably reflect on my high school English teacher’s words of wisdom: Just as Picasso studied traditional drafting first, so too did T.S. Eliot and John Dos Pasos first learn grammar.”

    Dang. I wish I’d had your English teacher teaching my art classes in college! Too many of them permitted “uneducated” abstract work in their classes, and ooo’d and ahh’d over it.

    Then I had to teach those students classic perspective off on the side (I was much older than the other students, and had learned basic rules of drafting in the 7th grade!).

    So it isn’t just linguistics where this is being affected.

    But linguistics is a much more important field of study, obviously, and plays a more important role in how our lives turn out.

  14. Propagandists have to study linguistics and oration techniques. Mandatory.

  15. Bookworm, I’m reminded–but sadly, not completely–of something said of medieval monks and their accuracy in copying texts. Absolute accuracy was the necessary standard, and slippage there was only a presage of general cultural and moral decline! Certainly we can see they run parallel, even if we cant exactly prove a causal link. Moral slackness is at home amid such looseness; perhaps if there were a mayor of language usage, like Guliani of New York, to apply a “broken windows” doctrine to the problem. Vandals are not comfortable in well kept neighborhoods–would that it were true too of these linguistic vandals.

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