Thoughts On My Complicated Relationship With Grammar

Earlier this week, my coworker Ezekiel wrote a post about the relationship between grammar and colonialism (for the record, I strongly recommend reading Ezekiel’s post, which is very well thought-out in addition to being very right). In my experience as a Writing Center consultant and in my other work, I have also had an immense amount of difficulty with the infamous grammar issue, and I thought I would take this time to weigh in on the issue, which is far too complicated to solve in a few blog posts. I wanted to discuss more of my personal feelings on the matter and my own experiences.

As a future English as a Foreign Language teacher, I have to know a lot about grammar. More than that, I kind of like learning about grammar. I think language is interesting, and I enjoy learning about systems of rules and how they function and change over time.

That being said, I hate our society’s relationship with grammar. As a culture, we seem to have picked one dialect and decided that it is better and more important than all of the other English dialects present. Every dialect follows its own set of internal rules, which are, frankly, completely arbitrary. The vast majority of the time, these differences don’t inhibit clarity, so why do they matter? Elevating one set of rules above all other sets of rules and saying that it is “correct” seems silly at best, harmful at worst.

Picking and choosing which modes of speech are “better” than others is called “prescriptivism”. It is the belief that one vernacular is better than others, and all other systems are “wrong”. In the United States, prescriptivists have selected one dialect, called “Standard American English”, and decided that it is the “best” English, labeling all other dialects, such as African American Vernacular English or Yeshivish, inferior (I can’t help but wonder why it is that this particular dialect is labeled “Standard”. It begs the question posed by Linda Christensen: Standard according to whom?). People who speak other dialects are often labeled as “uneducated”, even though they may have the same educational background as a person who speaks “Standard” English. One dialect is considered “better” than the others, and people who speak that dialect are, sadly, often considered “better” than people who don’t.

I really want to emphasize that grammar is arbitrary. Language changes over time, and different regions or groups develop different systems for speech. These systems are all governed by rules, and they all have internal logic. Again, though, they are arbitrary. As an example, in British English it is common to drop an article before the name of a location, saying, for instance, “I am going to hospital” instead of “I am going to the hospital”. This construction is “incorrect” in “Standard” American English, but “correct” in British English. There is nothing better or worse about the two dialects, as each follows its own logic, even though the rules are different across systems.

So, why, in the United States, do we elevate one vernacular over another? Well, unfortunately, the answer is often rooted in racism and classism. As my coworker Ezekiel recently discussed, prescriptivism has its roots in colonialism. People of different ethnic or socioeconomic groups often have specific dialects of English, including African American Vernacular English, Chicano English, New York Latino English, and Hawaiian Creole English, among others. Because “Standard” English is spoken by the educated, white, upper class, it is considered the “best” form of English. I believe that this is wrong, and it is harmful to anyone who isn’t already privileged by virtue of their race and wealth. As Americans, our relationship with grammar is one that allows for implicit bias, and, ultimately, oppression.

I have worked with a lot of students from a variety of different cultures and classes, and I have personally seen intelligent, hardworking, and diligent people be looked down upon as a result of their “poor” English. This kind of bias is not only emotionally hurtful, it is actually detrimental to people’s potential employment. As an example, because the ACTs are written in “Standard” English, students who may not be as proficient run the risk of getting a poor score, which might limit their college choices and scholarship options. Students who do not wish to attend college may experience difficulty getting a job if their resume is not written in “proper” English. Watching my students suffer these kinds of loss of opportunity is frustrating, sad, and deeply, deeply offensive to me.

All of that being said, I do still teach grammar to my students. I answer grammar questions honestly, and I am willing to help students alter language that does not conform to “Standard” rules. I may not think that some dialects are better than others, but future teachers and future employers might. I want to be sure that my students have the tools necessary to succeed in an environment that I don’t agree with. Working with students who are terrified that their English skills might cost them a job means constantly working to improve their “Standard” English proficiency, regardless of my personal opinions. I might feel icky about it, but not everyone believes that grammar as a system can be oppressive like I do.

Ultimately, I try to tell my students that their languages and dialects are valid; there is nothing wrong with the non-standard vernaculars that many students use. However, learning the rules of “Standard” English can help them succeed, and I want success for them. I hope that some day we, as a culture, will become more accepting of different dialects, but, until then, I teach students the rules even while I teach them why it’s wrong that they have to learn them.

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