Prescriptivism: How It Works… or doesn’t

Some societies have a tense relationship with the language that bears them. My French neighbor exclaimed, when I told him our new French teacher was from Burundi, “Oh, those Africans speak French so much better than we French do!” I have books in several languages (Dutch, Russian, etc.) claiming to help native speakers “say it right”. But I would wager no society elicits claims of ignorance of grammar and good usage the way American and British societies do. Several books on usage I own start off with a list of typical complaints about usage that are found in newspapers, periodicals, and on radio broadcasts. There are even terms of opprobrium for such people (coming from linguists, not the general public, which is prone to grant these people an authority they did not earn): language scolds, language mavens (used ironically), shamans, guardians, and, a term made famous by the late David Foster Wallace and used only in his family as it rooted out the errors of others: snoots.
What these mavens (Stephen Pinker’s coinage, from the Yiddish word for expert) have in common is a belief in Golden Tablets of usage, found either in their own minds or in Heaven, and a concomitant ignorance of English and how it works. Their knowledge of grammar and word usage derives primarily from an earlier education, which is the subject of this essay. One of the most famous, William Safire, wrote extensively for the NYT but went out and informed himself, so he was less guilty of the howlers typical of this crowd. Most of them have a very supercilious and, to use a word new to me but useful, snarky tone; they seem to enjoy looking down on others and asserting their own superiority. The worst of these was John Simon; I notated Simon’s book, Paradigms Lost, and will be posting my notes to  this my blog eventually. On the Dick Cavett show one time, Simon got so incensed he stood up and said, “I am not talking about people so stupid they don’t know the difference between the nominative and accusative cases!” (My 92 year old grandmother turned to me and wondered, in her Hillbilly accent, “I knowed there was some folks who didn’t know the pluperfect, but not even the accusative? Land o’ Goshen!) Simon was particularly egregious in this because he was born to a case language (Serbo-Croation), used German in school (another case language), and studied Latin and Greek extensively in school, 2 more case languages. (He was incensed over the usage “between he and I”).
What is the harm these people present, a clear and present danger? Aren’t they just harmless drudges and quaint scolds? If so, I wouldn’t be writing this.

What the mavens do is uphold an erroneous understanding of how to teach standard English. Remember the Golden Tablet remark above? Without being able to identify the source of what they label “correct” or “proper” English, they covertly invoke it. Often, the published mavens give them ammunition, perhaps the most famous of which is “two negatives make a positive” when discussing double negatives in English grammar. Simon offers many examples of someone applying logic to the grammar of a natural language, i.e. his own thinking on the matter. The idea of referring to English itself is never resorted to, like Aristotle assuring us women have X number of teeth without ever peering into a woman’s mouth. And here we introduce the terms most useful here: Prescriptivists and Descriptivists. These are the usual terms. Prescriptivists are those engaged in a very necessary trade: telling us the details of usage most likely to gain us access to the widest number of readers in the most effective way. Many persons call this being concise, precise, elegant, ………………………..
For anyone writing for an audience, such guidance is needed; all of us run into situations in writing, such as I am doing now, where it behooves us to check out a word’s meaning or spelling, the grammar of a phrase or sentence, the clarity of our syntax, and the value of the punctuation we are using. The reason for this is the essence of my argument in this essay. But first let me talk about the other term, Descriptivist.
The science of linguistics arose in the early 19th century and took a turn at the beginning of the 20th that brought it into the public eye. Linguists began making provocative claims: the languages of primitive peoples were not themselves primitive, the speech of the uneducated and dialect users was not unclear and imprecise, just different, and the old paradigms of Latin imposed on English in the 17th century were inappropriate. In the face of this, one curmudgeonly Englishman roared: “Thank God I learned English before the linguiststs got to it!” As late as the 60s, the word ‘linguist’ meant someone who spoke several languages or, in the military, an interpreter. Only since the 70s and 80s, in my experience, have educated people learned about linguistics, and then usually associating it with the name Chomsky (deep structure, surface structure).There are books written about the politics of linguistics, esp its effects on concepts like nationality, identity, race, social structure, not to mention literary criticism. Linguistics has had far more influence on our thinking than one would suspect from such an esoteric field.

What the Descriptivists did was describe language. What they did not do was judge it. From this, many observers got the notion that linguists did not think correct usage, clear expression and elegant writing were worthwhile, somehow ignoring that many linguists such as Edward Sapir and John McWhorter were aficionados of the arts and quite good writers of Standard English. What the Descriptivists did that so irritated an element of society was tell us that, as stated above, all people speak well-constructed language, be they a tycoon or a share cropper. This rankled those who believed strongly in a hierarchical society: they knew they possessed the right language and felt threatened when this “rightness” was dealt a blow by the declaration that other varieties might also be right.
The other sort of prickly person were those invested in the old Prescriptivist tradition of “don’t start a sentence with a conjunction and don’t split an infinitive”. That was their bread and butter or at least what allowed them to send slashing letters to the editor of the local paper. These people gave Prescriptivism a bad name; after all, we all need guides to language now and then and a solid education in expressing ourselves in the standard, but most people get quickly weary of the language scold who seem to pay more attention to how something is being said than to what is being said. So these Prescriptivists tend to stick to their own, hiding in obscure newspaper columns and blogs. BUT, and here is the nexus of all this, they frequently inhabit our classrooms and are the only source of learning the standard. Few outside the teaching profession teach language day in and day out. School teachers are the only ones in our society who have the opportunity, the gift, to help students reach some degree of fluency in the standard dialect. So let’s get to that.

For many of our students, what English teachers are teaching them is what is called by linguists, register. Most grammar handbooks list 3 –  high, middle or colloquial, and low but not unacceptable. In the notion of  ‘unacceptable’ lies a good deal of trouble. Here is the crux of the problem: teachers are trying to teach – and pay close attention to each word b/c I’ll unpack them later – the HIGH REGISTER of STANDARD WRITTEN ENGLISH. This sort of English is not well-known to most people anymore than that level of language is well-known to most people in any culture; any Japanese or Turk or Russian or Colombian or South African or Tunisian or Pakistani or Spaniard will tell you there is a level of their [‘his’ for the mavens] language that they themselves do not command or do not command well. Anyone would consider me high literate, in the sense of well-read. Nevertheless, there remains an image of an erudite person speaking this High Register Literary Written English without effort and with nary a mistake. The mistake will be defined by referring to the Golden Tablets.

A good many of our teachers are well-motivated and kindly. Their ability to explain the ‘whys’ of Written English and High Register English grammar is limited by their education in the matter. Ah! There’s the problem. Few teachers have even read a book on Prescriptive English let alone taken a class in how to teach it. As with so many of our foreign language teachers, it is assumed that if they speak the language, they can teach it. How do we know this does not work? Test our students on their ability to write High Register Standard English. And we do. And they do not do well on valid tests, i.e. tests that test for their ability to write such language, IOW, essays. Note that some school systems that at least have the reputation for turning out literate students do not use multiple choice testing; they use essay exams.

This issue starts with the student and we have two kinds, linguistically speaking: those who speak Standard English colloquially and those who do not. At this point, I must be very clear that all this is written about by scholars, all of the topics I will touch on. After all, it’s where I got my information. It is just that few teachers are exposed to this literature and fewer still take advantage of it to learn how to teach their charges. One reason for this is the Prescriptivists and I will get to that in a bit. The word dialect is thrown around but seldom used accurately, the common parlance using “accent” instead. The issue in some countries is regional dialects, but in the U.S., social dialects are potent monkey-wrenches in the education process. A lot of attention is paid to Black English as an example of a social dialect, but a moment’s reflection or listening will convince you that the majority of Americans do not speak Standard English.

The reason for this lies in our social system. Our egalitarianism allows people of any social class and speaking any regional dialect to advance in society to the highest levels. Pronunciation in particular plays almost no role in acceptability compared to England, where the Oxbridge inflected Standard must be adhered to for most public functions. Ross Perrot can run for President of the U.S. without changing his Texas ‘accent’, but Maggie Thatcher worked to conceal her Lincolnshire accent except when provoked to call an opponent ‘frit’ (= frightened). Later class distinctions became based upon speech, primarily pronunciation. The upper classes went to Eton speaking the local dialect and emerged all speaking the same. As recently as the 60s, students attending Harvard emerged with a Harvard accent, as did a friend of mine from here in Arizona. Where Americans put the emphasis is first on spelling, and then on grammar. And that’s where we are going now.

Grammar and glamour were originally the same word: they meant a kind of mystical aura. Grammar was the key to the language of the Holy Scriptures, and glamour was what certain popular people exuded. Like shirt and skirt using alternate pronunciations to create two new words, this one served a purpose: to designate things beyond the average person. Grammar has remained that for most people. Yet this is the nuts and bolts of the very language they speak. Why do they not understand grammar? There are those who will say grammar is logical and can be understood by smart people while others say English grammar, unlike that of other languages, is a hodgepodge of disorderly, random irrational expressions. English spelling is often pointed to as the exemplar of English’s disorderliness. In addition, English is compared to the Classical languages, Latin and Greek, with their “bristling morphologies”, and considered wanting, devoid of subtlety, and the result of careless speakers too lazy to observe their inflectional endings.

Many people utter these views with conviction and certitude. Anyone skeptical of these assertions is considered, in their/his turn, benighted and failing to meet standards. When questioned closely, the convinced and certain types fall apart quickly, having no evidence to back up their claims. At this point, they dismiss the importance of knowing English grammar and its origins and resort to social measures – to quote one particularly vitriolic response to my thinking on a listserv, “you’re a self appointed defender of rural, black, inner-city, blah blah blah patois?”

Most teachers speak, in some form or another, something we could label Standard American English. So what we see is that most teachers do not have recourse to learned material but are plumbing their personal language in order to determine what is correct and incorrect. My mother worked as a secretary with less than a high school education but was able to correct her bosses’ letters because she had arrived at age 9 in a section of the country which was a source of broadcast English (northern Ohio) from Appalachia with a thick hillbilly accent and quickly adjusted. That made her sensitive to grammar and pronunciation, although she still said, “A man come to the door yesterday.” What happens though when a student has written something that either doesn’t hang together (sentence structure) or violates patterns of Standard English (SE) grammar or is too colloquial for use in FORMAL WRITTEN ENGLISH? Examples? “She did things that they did not think they made sense.” “She done things …..” “She did things that they did not think made sense, grammar-wise.” The first one uses a resumptive pronoun, common in many languages such as Spanish and also in some varieties of English but not in SE. The second one involves the ever evolving strong verbs of English whose patterns have shifted around over the centuries, not only regularizing, as with climb~clumb to climb~climed but sometimes, as with dig~digged to dig~dug, going the other way. The latter uses a common way of making an adverb out of a substantive which is nevertheless considered colloquial and inappropriate for FORMAL WRITTEN ENGLISH. (FWE). The question is, how do we teach this to students for whom such usage is normal, something they hear from just about everyone around them.

Now if we were generally successful and talking only about a small number of students who do not learn FWE, we might see this as a matter of Special Education or special training as with dyslexics. But that is not the problem. The problem is the bulk of the population does not speak FWE at home and so do not bring it to school with them. The teacher has not been given the means to move the student from his home language to FWE, nor does the teacher himself know how he manages to use FWE. If he were honest, he would admit that a good number of his colleagues do not speak FWE, let alone write it, but he doesn’t notice this.

This last paragraph contains a lot, so let me unpack it. A person is not expected to SPEAK FWE; that’s why it is called WRITTEN. Yet the grammar rules teachers are most concerned about are those found in writing, the formal writing done for term papers, official letters, and so forth, thus FORMAL. The problem begins with this: a failure to recognize registers of language, more than just the highly simplified three registers: high, middle, and low, but the many contexts in which language is used and which demand subtle manipulation. Again, we are confronted with the GOLDEN TABLETS in the sky – one form, one form to bind them all. Because the teacher is unaware of this, the student becomes totally confused.  The further from SE his speech is, the more confused he is.
Then the teacher has probably never taken a class in grammar, in teaching language, in teaching writing, in linguistics, or in language development in children. In any school, there will be teachers who have taken one or two classes in these areas, but not enough to tilt the school’s instructional modes toward teaching SE, and besides, those teachers probably don’t have the time nor the skill to pass all that on, assuming they paid attention in class. So the teacher may be concerned about the students’ FWE, but cannot analyze the errors, pace the many manuals out there for teachers to do just that. Unfortunately, the manuals are written by people who do not understand the source of errors either.
Added to the teacher’s problems is one of social attitudes which allow the teacher to locate the locus of pathology in the student. The problem is the student’s. No, the student is merely speaking his home language. The problem is in the teacher who does not know how to effectively teach [how to teach effectively] SE to a kid who doesn’t know it already. I hope it is clear that we cannot blame teachers since that is how they were trained: no one laid out a course of study for them to learn how to teach SE to students who do not know it already.

The GOLDEN TABLETS further complicate the matter, and herein lies the crux of people’s hostile reactions to my proposals. The GOLDEN TABLETS do exist in people’s minds and what is in their minds has been put there with little examination of the input. There certainly exist teachers who think responsibly on this matter, as in, “I write FWE and speak relatively SE, so what can I do to teach this to my students?” Yet they express frustration, even though they avoid the worst mistakes of many of their colleagues, e.g. ridiculing non-SE (often the home language of their students), assuming the correct forms of FWE are obvious and rational, giving glib explanations that fail to address the students’ confusion, and, most of all, give the impression that FWE is the sort of language to be used at all times. Think of the teacher admonishing the small child, “Not can I go to the bathroom but may I go to the bathroom.” (Even that is wrong on the teacher’s part because the may/can distinction has long been lost)

I will posit here that if teachers could teach FWE as a variant of English rather than as the goal of every speaker of English, they could get more realistic in what they are trying to do, which is to get students to write FWE. I don’t mean to caricature teachers, but there are quite a few who do adopt a condescending attitude about “correct” grammar and thereby turn off the student who might be interested in learning FWE. At this point, I hope also that I have made it clear that most teachers have a fuzzy idea about grammar, and so we must ask what it is that they do teach?

There are only around 15 shibboleths, rules of “correct English” that reflect neither good English nor a solid foundation in English.

1. The shibboleths are: splitting infinitives, as in “To boldly go where no man …”
2. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction nor, at the end, put a preposition on. T
he pronoun “their” always has a plural antecedent, so every child has a right to HIS language, not THEIR language.
3. Rejoinders like “I could care less” are nonsensical and illogical when meaning “I do not care at all”.
4. The object of a preposition is always a pronoun in the oblique case, the accusative e.g.” between him and me”, not “between he and I.”
5., Conversely, a pronoun used as a subject or predicate nominative must always be in the subject case or nominative, as in “Billy and I went to the store…”, never “Billy and me went….”
6. The subject form of a pronoun (English doesn’t have subject/oblique distinctions among nouns) should be used in the predicate nominative position, thus: [phone rings, lady answers] “This is she”; or, “Who baked the cake?” “It was I.”
7. Double negatives, as in , “I didn’t see nobody.”
8. Words such as “hopefully” must be used in their basic meaning of “full of hope” in reference to a specific person, so not “Hopefully, they will come early” but “I hope they …..”
9. Dangling participles such as, “Falling off the wagon, the horses left the boy and ran off.”
10. Distinctions like “between” requiring there be only two elements and “among” for more than two.
11. Etymological distinctions like “decimate” meaning no more and no less than 1 in 10, based on the origin of the word in the Latin word for 10, decem.
12. Interjections like, “like” and “all” that appear not to be used in their dictionary meaning and simply are fillers that reflect a low level of thought.
13. Group genitives such as, “The girl across the street’s bike.”
14. Who could forget the venerable “whom”, the one for which people draw themselves up to their full height, put on their best Oxbridge accent, and declare to be essential to the continued progress of the human race.
15. Few and less finds mavens frothing at the mouth b/c it seems so clear to them that “one uses” [note my elevated tone] ‘few’ when dealing with enumerated items and ‘less’ when dealing with items in a mass.

A much longer list of complaints will be found in my notes which I will eventually post to my blog on John Simon’s Paradigms Lost. A list of books on this topic is available on my blog at ——————– Let me assure you that there are quite sophisticated treatments of English grammar that reveal a good deal about the language’s structure
At this juncture, I’ll just take each of these and comment on them briefly.
1. Infinitives in Latin were bound morphemes and so, Latin being a sort of sacred language, it was felt that English should emulate Latin as much as possible, so since you could not separate the infinitive ending in Latin from its verb, so the “to” of the English infinitive should not be separated from its verb.
2. “Their” is used as a kind of place marker. Such extensions of use are known to linguists as “grammaticalization” and is, basically, how the grammar of a language grows. The -ed of the English past tense of weak verbs seems to have derived from a Germanic word for “do”, so “He wipe did” became “he wipe-d”. Later we’ll see why trying to reverse such changes in a language are not only useless, they attack changes that serve a communicative purpose. Imagine what you would correct the following sentence to: “Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.”
3. Steven Pinker rather snidely states that people who don’t “get” this have a tin ear. It is a colloquial, i.e. spoken, use of intonation to convey snideness.
4. This is one that drives a lot of us crazy, the “between he and I” nonsense. We have always attributed it to a kind of overreaction to corrections of “him” and in “Billy and him went to the store,” so if “he” sounds posh there, it must sound even posher to say “between he and I”.
5/6.. When talking to French teachers about this, I have a leg up b/c French uses what is called a disjunctive pronoun, “moi”. So, “it is me” vs “it is I” is obviated in French by saying, “C’est moi” = “It’s me.” Spanish teachers and Latin teachers, OTOH, refer to their languages “correct” use of the subject form of the pronoun, but then Spanish teachers can be brought up short by pointing out that “It is I” in Spanish uses the first person form of the verb: “Soy yo = am I.” Of course, all of that is nonsense b/c you cannot compare languages as a guide to usage. French would use the dreaded double subject, “Me and Billy, we went to the store.” ABSOLUTE BARBARISM!! if the French weren’t the epitome of culture and sophistication. So what’s going on here. See the end of this list of shibboleths.
7. Double negatives are a feature of many languages, absolutely normal. However, this is the one victory the Prescriptivists can claim: in what used to be called “polite society”, we just do not use double negatives, despite the fact that they are (almost) ubiquitous in speech. No matter how we show that double negatives are reasonable: comparatively, historically, logically, grammatically……… it doesn’t matter; the Prescriptivists have won on this one. But let’s consider this:
The so-called ‘logic’ the mavens wish us to apply is a very shallow sort of pseudo-logic like ‘two negatives make a positive so “I didn’t see nothing” means you DID see something:…….. utter nonsense. Everyone with a brain knows the speaker did not see anything, he just used a form of grammar that is non-standard, not nonsensical. Of course, from this, the mavens immediately assume the point is to not teach SE and let people “talk just any old way”, as in “If you don’t play with my rules, you don’t have any rules.” Think about it for a minute: my handyman, who spoke a urban form of Black English, told me he hadn’t “weed-eated the yard yet”. Any other use of ‘eat’ would elicit the past tense ‘ate’ from him, so why ‘eated’ here? Because of the deep logic or deep structure, if you will, of how the mind processes language. New verbs get the past tense and past participle formed regularly with -ed. Because ‘weed-eater’ gives a back formation of a new verb, ‘to weed-eat’, and the eating involved is not the essential meaning of ‘eat’, which means to ingest something, the brain processes ‘to weed-eat’ as a new verb forming its past forms regularly, thus ‘weed-eated’ rather than ‘weed-ate’. (See Pinker’s The Language Instinct for this fascinating processing phenomenon).
8. Here the Prescriptivists show their ignorance. Many adverbs are used as sentence adverbs, i.e. applying to the whole sentence. Many such sentence adverbs exist, used without qualms by the best of the mavens, such as frankly, accordingly, etc. No one objects that it is the person who must be frank, but somehow, in a fashion very, very typical of mavens, Prescriptivists in general, quite random. Why pick on ‘hopefully’ but ignore ‘mercifully’? Some adverbs are indeed verb phrase adverbs, like ‘carefully’, which do refer to the actor.
9. This is similar to the double negative except that there are good reasons to avoid this in careful speech and certainly in FWE, not b/c it imputes social stigma but b/c it does offer clarity. However, in casual speech we can fix up any misunderstanding, so this is an example of a rule in the sense of a man-made rule that is useful in FWE but about which in speech we can be lax…… on.
10. Few people recognize the -tw- of ‘between’ as related to ‘two’, nor do they recognize the root in ‘twist’, ‘twine’, ‘betwixt’, ‘twin’, and other ‘two’ words. I have some good examples of how a speech community begins to lose the sense of a word for anyone who wants to plow through examples. In many cases, the corrections to ‘among’ turn out to be inappropriate b/c a thoughtful examination of the context reveals that indeed the speaker has interaction between pairs in mind.
11. No one in his right mind bases current meanings on the etymology of the word; if so, we would say “shirt” only when we have the top part of a tunic in mind, not a separate garment.
12. These words are used as quotatives and intensifiers and they often denote attitudes toward the topic or the speaker or audience. “I’m like really stoked.” may be dismissed as teenage talk but we have history on our side: “He was all p.o.’d about it,” may be sneered at, yet everyone uses “alright” {“all right” for some folks is the only acceptable spelling”} and it comes from a 13th century [don’t, like, quote me on that date] usage of ‘all’ similar to its use now.
13. Obviously, putting an inflectional ending on a phrase instead of on the word it belongs to is truly a barbarism of the worst kind, yet………. many language show a similar shift of an inflectional ending to a particle e.g. French colloquial speech takes the ‘t il’ of “a-t-il?” = does he have and uses it as a sentence question marker, as in “Tu viens ti?” While this is very colloquial and not as common as other question markers in French, and I can’t think of another example that has followed such a course and has become standard in any language, it nevertheless illustrates the process by which particles become detached to signal grammatical and syntactic meanings. Recall the process grammaticalization.
14. I have to laugh when people display their faux erudition by declaiming that “whom” goes back to the accusative case and must therefore be used whenever “who” functions as the direct object , because it goes back to the dative case (hwam), not the accusative (hwone). But, referring back to #11, it doesn’t matter; it’s how it is used now and it is not used. We’ve lost all oblique forms except he~him, she~her, we~us, they~them, I~me. Note, BTW, that English verbs used to have singular and plural forms for the past, with only was~were hanging on except in speech communities that have continued the progress (?) toward leveling all past tense forms.
15. Most of what I’ve read gives examples of the use of ‘less’ with individual items when they are clearly considered in mass, such as, “We see less Asian models on magazine covers now” when “Asian models” are clearly thought of not in terms of each model but in terms of “Asian models” as an indicator of social trends. However, the distinction may be lost just like the one between ‘more’ and ‘mo’. No, I’m not speaking Southern now, it was once more~mo, with ‘more’ for more in number and ‘mo’ for more in mass. I once purchased a reader in Middle English, wondering if I might find that usage; I opened the book and, unbelievably, on that very page I read, “Men ben sore aferd for takyn of mo…..” The word is defined as “To a greater degree, number, or extent; more; also, more energetically, conscientiously, or diligently” as opposed to more in mass. Do we insist on maintaining this distinction? No. Language changes.
One thing should be noted: those of us who warn of the dangers of the rigid use of prescriptive rules often cite grammar manuals as the source of our problems, but a perusal of such grammars, some going back to the first half of the last century, reveal a pretty judicious approach to some of these issues. To be sure, few teachers now emphasize the shibboleths, but once you get beyond the shibboleths, just what do teachers focus on when channeling students into SE?
Let’s turn from the shibboleths to a more typically encountered mistake on a high school term paper.
How do you set a standard for “I didn’t like his being here” versus “I didn’t like him being here?” Is there one? How does the teacher know?
Would it help to give students a list of adjectives and how they are used, with or without prepositions, etc.? Just how does one use a list like that? Memorize it? Carry it around with you? Google it? When I write in Spanish, I certainly check out many things before I send my missive off. Oh, and do we teach ‘missive’ and ‘epistle’ along with ‘letter’ and ‘e-mail’? How about ‘line’, as in “I’ll drop you a line”? Even many of my native speakers don’t know these usages in their own language.
So the question is: how do we learn these things and the corollary, how do we teach them?
Let’s take an extreme example. The student writes, “He bees gone all the time.” The teacher asks what he means by ‘bess’, as she pronounces it. The student replies it’s bees, like bees that sting you. OK, the teacher says, then your sentence doesn’t make sense; how do bees fit into your narrative? “No, I mean, the person just bees gone all the time.” The teacher is now confused but hopes to clarify by restating the phrase as “He is gone all the time” and the student agrees, “That’s what I said.” “OK, then, why didn’t you write that?” The student falls silent, a bit frustrated since the teacher clearly knows what he means but see something wrong with what he wrote but he doesn’t know what is wrong. By this time, the teacher has tumbled to the fact that she is dealing with a dialect issue but is herself frustrated b/c she doesn’t know how to explain what is going on to the student b/c she doesn’t quite know either.
Both are satisfied with rewriting the phrase in SE as “He is gone all the time.”
So what IS going on here? The student, thinking in his own dialect – and I chose Black English b/c I know it far better than any other, being around it all the time in my wife’s family, and it is the furthest removed from SE yet presents itself very often in American classrooms – has locked himself in grammatically by using the adverbial phase ‘all the time’; and, of course, that is what he means: as a habit, the person he is writing about is always gone. But here, AAVE (African-American Vernacular English [vernacular = the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a articular country or region, spoken as one’s mother tongue; not learned or imposed as a second language … according to Google, and note especially the word ‘region’, which we will look at in a minute)must make a distinction that SE does not impose on the speaker/writer, one of aspect. In SE, if you want to state that being gone is a habit, you add the adverbial phrase only, but in AAVE you must change to the habitual aspect, which is signaled by BE (called ‘invariant BE’ by linguists and newspaper writers had a field day during the Ebonics controversy by pompously telling their readers that in AAVE, BE is not ‘conjugated’. Boy! Did that make them look smart). So to clarify: “he gone” means he is out just now, at this moment, while “he be gone” means he is habitually gone. “He sick” means he is out sick today, but “He be sick” means he is an invalid or always ill. When the student wrote “all the time”, his dialect forced him to use BE.
So why the -s, bees? That word ‘region’ in the definition of vernacular is too restricted; some dialects are social, i.e. several dialects may exist in the same space. The ‘space’ in this case, is the Black community as distinguished from the White community. I’ve always said, if you want Black people to talk like White people, have them live among White people. As that is happening more and more now, indeed, lots of Black kids speak the English of their White peers (not necessarily SE). So the student puts an -s on b/c he is vaguely aware that SE puts an -s on the ends of verbs sometimes, he is just not sure where or when. I have heard speakers of deep AAVE say things like ‘he am’, b/c they are approximating SE but since in typical sentences using the verb ‘to be’, they delete the verb, as in “He my brother”, so it might come out, trying to approximate SE, as “He is my brother” or “He am my brother”; *He be my brother makes no sense (you can always make up situations to accommodate an unusual usage, as in “In the play we put on every Christmas, John and I play siblings and he be my brother” – possible.

The most damaging myth we hold about language is that it is a conscious, controlled process. We must turn again to WRITTEN, because that is the source of this myth. When we write, we compose unless it’s a note to our mom or ourselves, and even then we tend to notice if it doesn’t make sense or we may not like our word choice and try to think of a more apt word. But language is spoken, not written. When we write, we use what Krashen calls the monitor, we monitor our expression. When we speak, we seldom do that and our speech falls out of our mouths and into the ears of our interlocutors without anyone thinking about how the languages works, we listen for meaning, content. These last are incredibly important and subtle; a relationship can be shattered, at least momentarily, by a maladroit word or sardonic inflection of the voice. Mostly that’s what we pay attention to, not the grammatical forms, not when we speak.
So here is the key to the problem: we think we are teaching English, just English, but what we are really teaching is a restricted subgenre of English: FORMAL WRITTEN ENGLISH.
Let’s take an example: we have irregular plurals in English of two kinds: native and borrowed. We seldom stumble over native irregulars like oxen or feet, but borrowed ones like phenomenon~phenomena are horses of a different color. The common method of teaching these latter is to give the student a list of Latin/Greek irregular plurals, have them fill in blanks with the correct form, and then test them. Perhaps, two years down the line, the learner will remember it is irregular and what the form is, but more likely, he will remember the word as ‘phenomena’ and use it as a singular and still stumble over the plural or just use ‘phenomena’, thereby masking his feeble hold on the form. The worst one is datum~data, and I’ve heard announcers say silly things like, “These data that we have is what we’re basing this on”. Why is this? English is striving, if a language can strive, toward analytical forms and simplifying the old inflectional endings. Throw in a foreign ending and you really have problems. Also, plurals are not as simple as they might seem; see my blog entry………..

So what is a teacher to do? Read all the many books I’ve listed in my blog at entry…… ? After all, it’s where I got my information. It is just that few teachers are exposed to this literature and fewer still take advantage of it to learn how to teach their charges. One reason for this is the Prescriptivists; they have assured us that the half-remembered, barely understood shibboleths are the be-all and end-all of SE, when in fact it is a quantum leap from those to the real complexities of language. We go back to an earlier part of this essay and repeat: students who come from homes speaking SE will be guided into FWE much more easily than those speaking any of the many dialects of vernacular English and the latter make up the bulk of our student population now. My son and son-in-law work in a district with over 19,000 students. 89% of which are Hispanic, only 4% of which are White. Linking back to the previous page, how much exposure to SE do you think the Hispanic kids get?
So, again, what is a teacher to do? For teachers who believe a language must be taught via careful listing out and practicing of rules, then that is surely how they will try to teach FWE. Here are two anecdotes that illustrate the power of what has come to be called the Comprehensible Input method but has been followed for centuries as noted in several of my blog entries………
Here are two anecdotes illustrating how it works:
Anecdotes from Betty Lou Leaver:
Leaver trained FL teachers. One was in Prague teaching Czech to a group of American businessmen using the CI-type techniques and communicative methods Leaver had taught her. She signaled back frantically that after 3 days of instruction, the Americans were complaining they were not learning Czech b/c they did not know how to conjugate verbs and other grammar features the way they had studied in school. Leaver told her to have them go to the chalkboard and write out as many Czech words as they knew. The teacher sent back that after they had filled the board 3 times, they got the point and went back to learning Czech.
In another case, Leaver had to interview a young girl for some reason about her language abilities. The girl said French was the language she knew, but Leaver knew the girl had lived in Moscow for 5 years. The girl adamantly denied knowing Russian; she knew French b/c she had studied it in classes. So Leaver handed her a story in Russian and asked her to at least try to understand a little bit and left the girl alone. When she returned, the girl said she had understood nothing and pouted a bit, saying it was French that she had studied, not Russian. Then Leaver asked absent-mindedly to tell her what that thing was she had given her; Leaver feigned forgetfulness. The girl then recounted the story, including details, in an off-hand, impatient manner.
If we examine carefully the success of people who switch from a dialect to SE, we see a common thread: they read a lot and, when possible, attended carefully in situations where SE was being spoken. My wife is a case in point: she grew up in a family speaking a deep form of AAVE. Working in the homes of well-off Whites, she heard SE and paired that with the wealth of the families, especially their beautiful homes (she’s got one now). A fortunate by-product of an unfortunate situation was that teachers in Black schools were the best of the best since they could get jobs as Black females only in nursing or teaching, so they also taught, but, more importantly, modeled SE. When I met my wife she still had some AAVE when she spoke SE, but within a short time her speech became indistinguishable from that of Whites, to the consternation of some interlocutors in phone conversations. When she taught Black second graders, she spoke dialect with them on the playground but only SE in the classroom, thereby teaching them the value of their home dialect and the ability to code switch, as it is called. This contrasts with the custom of many teachers of denigrating non-standard English, the language of the students’ parents and peers.
The recommendation I can give is to do everything possible to inculcate habits of reading in your students. In that way, the input they need will occur. Guidance will be useful, but leave the red pen in your desk drawer – it doesn’t help.
Appendix I – Africans in the U.S. – the role of Melville Herskovits must be understood to see how our understanding of the speech of African-Americas, AAVE, has developed over the last half century and is in direct conflict with the older understanding. Herskovits and his wife did immense anthropological and ethnographic research in West Africa and the African Diaspora in the New World. His thesis was to show how the behavior of Africans in the New World could be explained by seeing them as adaptations of African cultural traits to the new environment marked by their status as slaves. Hitherto (thitherto?) the behaviors i.e. customs and traditions of Africans in the New World where they differed from those of the Europeans had been characterized – with some notable exceptions – as random, ineffectual, of spontaneous origin or, at best, adaptations to slavery. My own readings in these cultures before the flow of research into them – that is, pre-1960s – revealed a mindset among scholars that nothing of value was to be found among these cultures, among these people. And then Herskovits’ The Myth of the Negro Past fell into my hands and al was explained. The book came out in 1941, in part to combat the spate of lynchings and other atrocities against Blacks in the U.S. A precis of a book on Herskovits along with a blurb from The London Times about it reflects the view of Herskovits’ influence on our views of Africans in the New World:
Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge is the first full-scale biography of the trailblazing anthropologist of African and African American cultures. Born into a world of racial hierarchy, Melville J. Herskovits (1895–1963) employed physical anthropology and ethnography to undermine racist and hierarchical ways of thinking about humanity and to underscore the value of cultural diversity. His research in West Africa, the West Indies, and South America documented the far-reaching influence of African cultures in the Americas. He founded the first major interdisciplinary American program in African studies in 1948 at Northwestern University, and his controversial classic The Myth of the Negro Past delineated African cultural influences on American blacks and showcased the vibrancy of African American culture –
“For this reason, Jerry Gershenhorn’s intellectual biography, which sets Herskovits in the context of the race issue in the United States, is a welcome addition to the debate.”—Times Literary Supplement
Prior to this, the view took other factors into account and came to the conclusion that the culture of Africans in the New World was inferior – either random, spontaneous and ineffective or an adaptation to slavery that the culture needed to be shorn of in order to become more like Euro-Americans. One history professor of mine said, “Blacks are like a man knocking on your door in a storm; you will let him in only when he has wiped the mud off his feet.” A supervisor of mine told me Blacks had been in this country for over 200 years and had failed to advance out of poverty while European immigrants had arrived recently and had already reached the middle class. Such views were common at every level. When Black militants in the 60s stormed academic conferences on African-American culture and history, claiming the all White cadre of scholars was distorting their history, they were, ironically, carrying a copy of The Myth under their arms. At this time, the early 60s, Blacks in U.S. universities were under pressure from faculty and fellow students who did not feel they belonged there; harassment even took the form of students standing at the door to the classroom, telling Black students they did not belong there. The so-called “political correctness” policies on campuses date from this period when the universities attempted to shield Af-Am students from such harassment.
Also in this period, the early 60s, the language of Af-Am, AAVE, was seen by educational researchers as symptoms of what they called “cultural deprivation”, no longer “racial inferiority”, but just as effective in disparaging the culture and speech of Af-Am children. A slew of research poured forth investigating Black language linguistically, i.e. scientifically, and revealing its regularities, a sample of which I gave in the section on “bees” in the body of this essay. How did we get from those days, when this assumed inferiority was used to justify exclusion to a time when Blacks in the U.S. occupy almost every niche in the society, albeit not as vigorously as we might like?
Back to Herskovits. His thesis was that what we saw in the cultures of the New World deriving from slavery was either an type of adaptation, often a syncretism, or an outright survival of an African cultural trait. Syncretism amounted to linking an African trait to a European trait, and in the process masking or disguising the African content. The outstanding example is linking gods of African religions to Catholic saints; to the outsider, the slaves were worshipping St. Patrick, but the snake god, Damballah, fit right in with the snake motif of the Irish saint. That not only shielded worshippers from disapproving eyes but made them feel more a part of the surrounding dominant culture. We can see this operating in speech as well, as when the student put an -s on “bees” to approximate SE. This was a powerful intellectual tool that lent itself to an explosion of research into ethnography and slavery, pretty much destroying the earlier reliance on so-called scientific racism.
Often, these adaptation and syncretisms were evaluated as mere distortions of Euro-American culture. For example, when the slaves built a chimney on their cabins, they would build it in a way that it would not stand without being propped up with a stick. At first seen as incompetence, this technique came in handy when frequent chimney fires occurred and the residents had only to run outside and kick the supporting stick away for the chimney to fall to the ground and burn out harmlessly. In the same way, journalists in the 90s ridiculed the “be” of Ebonics without realizing that it allowed AAVE to make a distinction SE could do only by adding an adverbial phrase.
So it is that when AAVE became an object of study in the 60s, it was against this backdrop. The only serious study that had been done, in 1949 by a Black linguist, Lorenzo Turner, had been done of the speech of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina called Gullah. This speech turns out to be the only Creole, in the linguistic sense, spoken in the U.S. outside of the French Creole spoken in Louisiana (my brother-in-law married into a French Creole family and I met the grandmother, who spoke the old language – the last in the family). These Creoles have been celebrated in the arts, Gullah in Porgy and Bess and the Louisiana Creole in countless songs and movies. But this initially tilted the studies of AAVE in the direction of survivals of African language patterns. However, most linguists doing this were not familiar with British dialects of the period, and once researchers began exploring those, it was found that many of the traits of AAVE can be more economically traced to these dialects. What was happening was that the researchers were assuming the Euro-Americans the slaves interacted with spoke something like SE, which, on a moment’s reflection, is impossible. Interestingly, AAVE is remarkably uniform throughout the U.S., no doubt b/c the migration out of the South is quite recent. Change is occurring in AAVE, just as it does in all languages, including SE, as is seen by research in East Palo Alto, CA (which I have visited): younger Black people are using the pluperfect in narrative, a new development. I noticed the same is true of Urdu, a pretty standard usage. So, instead of saying, “Yesterday we went to the store and wanted to buy some candy, so we gave the clerk a dollar and he gave us our change”, one would say, “Yesterday we had gone to the store and had wanted to buy some candy, so we had given the clerk a dollar and he had given us our change.” (I made that up but can supply you with collections from field work there conducted by John Rickford – the Urdu examples are found in Teach Yourself Urdu).
What we see in that it is not just those Blacks continuing to live in Black enclaves who retain AAVE, but people like my wife, who gleefully falls into dialect when talking to friends. Who would want to lose the expressiveness of that speech when people all over the world and especially young people in the U.S. freely borrow from it, via music and movies if not in actual contact with African-Americans. George Carlin had a very funny skit on that topic that reflected at least one side of the transfer of language, Black to White.
The research into this is hampered by the fact that few writers wrote down the speech of slaves or even of free Blacks, although some plays, dramas, and songs of the period do offer us a glimpse. In fact, many Whites spoke these Creoles, as we’ll see in the next appendix. Even if the Africans took up a form found in British dialects, they certainly used the form in an adapted way, adapted to their own needs and speech, some perhaps even surviving from African language structures. Compare this with the speech of slaves recorded in Roman plays, giving us the Latin learned by inhabitants of the Italian Peninsula conquered by the Romans. This was the speech that carried by the Roman Empire to other parts of Europe, eventually becoming Vulgar Latin which led on to Spanish, French, Italian, etc. Up until just a couple of centuries ago, these languages were thought of much as Creoles and AAVE are now, inferior reproductions of the Master Language.
Sadly, into all of this jumped the Oakland School Board in 1996. The Board was galvanized b/c not only were Af-Am kids coming to school speaking AAVE and struggling with reading in SE, so were Cambodian kids b/c they were growing up in Black neighborhoods in Oakland and learning their English from Blacks (remember how I said that if you want Black people to speak SE, have them live among SE speakers?). With all good intentions, the Board latched onto to some of that earlier research, in part b/c it seemed Afro-centric, what with its references to “African systems” and so forth. On top of that, they dredged up an old term that was invented, again with good intentions, by a linguist, Dr. Williams, in the early 70s, to label Black speech: Ebonics, a combination of ebony and phonics. Linguists did not use it, continuing with AAVE, but the press picked it up to label Black speech, relying on their readership’s assumption that AAVE is just an inferior version of proper English. Ebonics not only became a butt of jokes and an excuse to draw editorial cartoons of Black people that would earlier have been censored as racist (“we’re doing this to save poor Black children from the stigma of Ebonics”), but it has persisted to this day as a misleading term for Black speech.
An even more egregious error was made, again, not the fault of the Board, in using a term of long lineage among linguists when talking about relationships among languages: Spanish and French are said to have a “genetic” relationship to each other and to Latin. This term refers to the languages, not to the people. But in the atmosphere already fraught with racism, with the problems Black students had in school and in testing, heavily attacked as genetically inferior by Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray, the word ‘genetic’ hit like a bombshell. Self-righteous protest arose among well-meaning people who believed the Board was saying Black children are born to speak Ebonics/AAVE due to their genes, IOW, racially consigned to speak bad English. The destruction of the Board was complete.
Linguists had thought the rise of the controversy over the Board’s decision to train teachers to understand the linguistic basis of their students’ speech gave them a chance to highlight for the public what linguists do. Instead, it merely reinforced an opinion that began in the early 60s with the publication of The Webster’s Third International Dictionary that linguists were just another manifestation of the permissive society, an anything goes society in which correct and proper speech is maligned in favor of slang and dialects. Linguists retreated into perplexity and began doing more research to back up the importance of recognizing English as it is spoken rather than relying on grammar rules based on false principles [see next appendix]
Appendix II – Intellectual History of Prescriptivism – the role of Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray are critical to the development of the Prescriptivist movement. These 18th century men were post-Renaissance, smack dab in the middle of the Enlightenment. The passion for order and regularity was central to the founding of many sciences in this period. Too bad for us that Lowth missed the part about empirical observation and based his grammars on spurious foundations, principally the structures of Latin and the musings of his own great mind. Lowth in particular was the sort of man we admire in this period, and truly believed English should and could be brought into the same order as the natural sciences had shown nature to be and Latin was believed to be. While Lowth’s motives and those of many of his compatriots were noble, their followers, legion, were resisted by other great minds, notably Joseph Priestly, the father of chemistry, who insisted that English be examined for what it is and not for what it should be.
Nevertheless, Lowth’s rules for English, based on false premises and inappropriate models, were picked up by others, most excruciatingly for all of us who love language, by Murray. Murray, an American, moved to England and wrote a book that might have been studied in musty libraries by specialists in the Age of Reason, but he his little grammar manual hit a market that proved to be endless once it was ensconced. Twenty-one editions in eleven years, equally popular in Britain and America, the book, with the “rules” made up by Lowth and others, came to dominate Britishers’ and Americans’ concept of proper grammar. English as she is spoke was not the concern of these pedants and pedagogues, no matter how sincere they were in their attempt to rein in English’s wild excesses; it was to refine the language and make it approximate the Classical languages. Grammar books on languages with no case system written as late as the last part of the 20th century dutifully laid out “declensions” modeled on the Latin cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative. Even Japanese grammars were reduced to declensions even though Japanese has no such thing. English grammars laid out a noun declension thus: the cat, of the cat, to/for the cat, the cat, and by the cat.
So what was Murray’s market? Businessmen moving to London from the hinterlands had become successful and wanted their children to speak the way the aristocrats they aspired to spoke (one aristocrat said not long ago, “If you want to know correct English, just listen to me”). Their country-bumpkin accents betrayed their origins but the boys went off to boarding schools and picked up the Oxbridge accent while the girls went to finishing schools. The teachers in the latter were at a loss as to how to get the girls to speak properly and welcomed Murray’s guide. To bring this back to Creole, many of these girls came from British islands in the Caribbean where their playmates had been slave children, so they spoke Creole. Their 18th century teachers had an issue similar to that of teachers in the islands now and similar even to teachers working with AAVE speaking children.
Many of the rules made up by Lowth and other worthies have pursued us down to the present day. One of the silliest was the proscription of the so-called split infinitive. This rule was promulgated in 1834 by a magazine writer known only as “P”. It caught on and still forces writers into contortions in order to avoid putting a word between “to” and its verb. I never understood the Black expression “splitting your verbs”, by which they meant speaking improper English, until I thought about the term “split infinitive”. Aha!
There are few if any good manuals for FWE. We all need that and perhaps someone can tell me of a reliable guide. Strunk and White has been criticized but remains in force despite its age. When the division between the colloquial language and the formal written language becomes too stark, we get diglossia, the use of two dialects or languages in the same speech community. Greece up until 1974. Norway allows to forms of Norwegian in schools, each school having to order textbooks in one or the other dialect. Switzerland has four official languages and Belgium splits between Flemish and French. A degree of competition and vitriol can insert itself in these situations but many countries get by with two or more languages, each having its own sphere. Neverthelss, it is good news for us and the U.S. that, despite our size, we maintain a pretty stable speech community throughout and dialects lose their rough edges that may interfere with communication. Thus the need for a reasonable prescriptivism.
So what is a teacher to do? First of all, it is pointless to try to get a teacher to understand all of this in enough detail to help students. Secondly, foreign language education has not been much better in its results. Apparently, teaching grammar rules does not work well. What might?
Getting students to read ….. a lot, seems to give them the input their brains need to lay down the patterns of SE. That’s about all i can offer, along with patience and respect for students’ native speech

Added 9/23/19

I happened to find this list and it has a few additional items:

1. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
2. Fragments are always considered an error in writing.
3. Where you pause, put a comma.
4. Where you breathe, put a comma.
5. Never put a comma before “and” in a series.
6. The semicolon is an outdated mark of punctuation.
7. The most important part of speech is the noun.
8. The pronouns “everybody,” “somebody,” “anybody” are plural.
9. The pronoun “who” is always first, and the pronoun “whom” is
always last.
10. “I” is always better than “me” in formal speech.
11. Dashes and hyphens are interchangeable marks of punctuation.
12. Periods and commas can go inside or outside of quotation marks.
13. Never begin a sentence with “And” or “Because.”
14. Never split an infinitive.
15. Always avoid passive voice.

Ben Varner
Feature Editor
Academic Exchange Quarterly


Urls to the bibliographical blog entries re Prescriptivism aka Doctrine of Correctness and the history of English       History of English        Doctrine of Correctness        History of English

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