Prescriptivism – short version of entry

This comment should not have to be made, but I have read so many posts to listservs by teachers who assert the absolute superiority of Standard English (SE) that I will make it : there is nothing inherently, linguistically superior about SE. Its vocabulary is larger b/c it is asked to perform all functions of our society and imaginations, but grammatically, phonetically, syntactically, lexically…. it is just like any other dialect. It just happened to have been chosen by largely economic factors to be the standard dialect. All national languages, at least, need a standard and the prescriptions that go with any standard. But attributing characteristics like precision and elegance and clarity to it as if other varieties do not possess these features is absurd. My wife would never give up her dialect anymore than Spanish or Arabic speakers wish to give up their home languages. I was raised in northern Ohio along the belt bordering the Great Lakes, which happens to be the dialect area chosen by its strong economic and political influence as the home of broadcast English, our standard. So I got a head start, my wife didn’t. To this day, little differences pop up between us, like the distinction between ‘speaking’ and ‘talking’, which does not exist in my dialect or the distinction between ‘pen’ and ‘pin’, which does not exist in her dialect.

Let me abjure any particular method of teaching Standard English (SE). I want to focus on what is not achieving results. I realize not everyone agrees that input is what teaches language or at least what sort of input works best. Direct instruction in grammar might be favored by some; I think what I will point out here relates to that approach as well.

Distilling this down to a readable length forces me to cut out a great deal of evidence for what I am saying. I will from time to time include a link to a very long essay I wrote initially in response to the claim that teaching proper grammar is the proper thing to do. Sure, but what evidence does anyone have that English teachers throughout the realm are achieving that result or ever did? If you firmly believe that children are learning SE just fine, then you need read no further. My blog post, titled Prescriptivism: How It Works…. or doesn’t, at

Prescriptivism: How It Works… or doesn’t

gives the background and backup to what I will state as pithily as I can here. Everyone says, “Keep it short”, but then when answering people’s questions, they say, “Well, why didn’t you say that?” Oh well.

Everyone acquires language. The question is, which one? The one in the home, usually. Acquisition is a technical term, jargon. It is different from learning, as when a student learns that the word “data” is a plural and “kudos” is a singular, but in normal speech says, “That data is good” and “He deserved those kudos.” Acquired means he says, “Those feet….,” not “Those foots….” I suspect most people reading this have learned a foreign language as an adult and can feel the difference between learned (have to think about it) and acquired (falls out of the mouth). I certainly can. Mistakes are made, e.g. the other day I said, “I don’t know what that’s on the floor” and quickly corrected myself to “…. what that is….” b/c a careful study of contracting in English explains how contractions work, but for native speakers those rules are acquired and UNCONSCIOUS.

When a student enters school, he comes either as a speaker of SE or as a speaker of a non-SE variety. The teacher’s job is to “polish” the language of the SE speaker and teach the forms of SE to the non-SE speaker. The latter is more akin to teaching a foreign language in the sense that the forms are not yet acquired.

That leads to an important element in all this: the distinction between spoken or colloquial language vs written language. (“colloquial” is more jargon and means “casual speech”; unfortunately, many use it to label a sub-standard variety of speech). For some years I was puzzled by my students’ opinion that contractions were “improper”. Finally, it dawned on me that their teachers had told them it was improper to use contractions in a formal written paper and they just generalized that rule.

The written/colloquial distinction needs refining: SE itself has a spoken or colloquial form and a written form; the varieties differ. In addition, another layer exists: Formal Written English. To introduce a jargon term: these are called registers. In my opinion, i.e. not backed up by reference, what has happened is that teachers have been so intent on teaching Formal Written English that they have given students the impression that that is the only correct or proper variety of language.

Non-standard varieties (note another jargon term: varieties as opposed to dialects) as well as dialects run into much larger problems: problems of syntax, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, phonetics, and subtle features such as tone and style. How important is it that teachers know how these varieties function with regard to these features? Not so much, but they do need to know they exist. That is where teacher education comes in. Attempts at this have run into strong headwinds and other items on this blog illustrate that.

One of the obstacles to teacher education is the notion that a teacher can expect a student to speak the way the teacher does. If the teacher and his students come from the same social circles, no doubt they will speak the same and refinement will be all that is necessary: he ‘don’t’ to he ‘doesn’t.’ But “My mom asked could he go with me” to SE “My mom asked if he could go with me,” is much deeper. Just that sentence can be problematic, not only in regard to syntax but to pronunciation (aksed or ass), word choice (ma, mother, moms, old lady, mommy, etc.), and grammar (might go with me). Amazing, huh? But think of the teacher grading a term paper and confronted with, “He didn’t like Jack doing that.” How about, “He didn’t like Jack’s doing that”? Is there a rule for this?

And this is where my usual diatribes and rants go: the shibboleths. My essay at contains a list of 15 of these with explanations of why they are silly. Labeling them silly is a measured and supported judgment. The essay on my blog does not give citations in the literature but elsewhere on my blog I have bibliographies of books which all agree on the basic facts concerning these shibboleths (there are more than 15, of course). Nonsense like ‘not ending a sentence with a preposition nor beginning one with a conjunction’ can be dispensed with. With more problematic ones like double negatives, students must learn not to use them in Formal Written English despite their sullied origins.  For me, this is a topic of great interest, but what is the real issue? The shibboleths, to the extent that teachers still follow them, totally confuse any native speaker of English, standard or non-standard. Again, I have to refer you to the list on my blog to combat the notion advanced in a post on a listserv (flteach) that we follow lots of rules made in the 17th century, why not these? Besides the fact that we do not practice 17th century chemistry any more and do not follow legal prescriptions for punishment of offenders any more (except in our new administration), even IN THE 17th CENTURY, people like Joseph Priestly, the father of chemistry, fulminated against these silly rules which “so offendeth against the genius of our language” (kind of made-up quote but I’ll get the real one if you want).

One other factor: the teacher’s attitude toward the students’ home language. Foreign language teachers talk about the affective filter, i.e. when you feel threatened or insecure, your intake valve shuts down. Rude remarks made about non-standard varieties the students’ families speak do not open the student up to following models of SE.

But what about modeling? My wife, a speaker of a deep form of AAVE (Black English) from East Texas, saw that the homes she worked in from the age of 6 were what she wanted for herself and she intuited that the way those people (White folks) talked might be one of the keys to success. She used her employers as models. She went to segregated schools where teachers were the cream of the crop since they couldn’t get jobs elsewhere and they modeled SE for her.

Now that works for some people. If you knew my wife, you would not be surprised that she not only acquired SE to the extent that some people have embarrassed themselves on the phone with her, assuming she was White. Nor would you be surprised that she continued to use Black dialect with her Black second grade students, but only on the playground; in class, it was SE. Not a lot of people are capable of straddling two linguistic and cultural worlds like that and the strain comes through even as she heads into her 75th year. We ask a lot of people in pushing them into SE, even more if that is not their home language but some variety of English. Non-English-speaking homes offer even more in-depth issues to deal with….. sensitively.


Vive la difference!

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