LawProse Lesson 348: “Good Grammar”: My Father’s Dream Part II

LawProse Lesson 348: “Good Grammar”: My Father’s Dream Part II

My father dreams of “good grammar” once again being taught in schools. He thinks it to be part of the American dream: an aspiration available to everyone. But “good grammar” in the eyes of one person is, in the eyes of another, unacceptable intolerance toward linguistic variation. So a consensus in educational approach seems unlikely.

At the extremes, both camps (grammar nazis vs. anything-goes permissivists) become absurd. What is needed is a middle ground in which (1) we recognize that Standard Written English does indeed exist (extremists doubt this, but it’s what you find in first-rate periodicals, among other places); (2) learning it should be an opportunity given to everyone; (3) children shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of the language spoken in their homes; and (4) people should be encouraged to show tolerance toward and acceptance of speakers of regional and class dialects.

But as with so many issues, we have clashing interests here. No. 2 collides with no. 3 and no. 4. A teacher insists on anyway (not *anyways), Jane and I will sing a duet (not *Me and Jane will sing a duet), I’m doing well (not *I’m doing good), mischievous (not *mischievious), and it doesn’t matter (not *it don’t matter), and a few hundred similar points. In their unsubtle minds, children view one as “right” and one as “wrong.” It doesn’t matter to them whether the teacher says one is “right” or “wrong” only as gauged by Standard English.

By junior high, some kids get marked down in their grades for slipping into the language spoken at home. By that time, the class divisions among students can already be pronounced.

The way things are today, in many communities the privileged kids go to private schools where “good grammar” is taught, and the other kids go to public schools where the standards are less strict. Again, the class divisions appear early in life.

Many people—politicians and almost everybody else—simply close their eyes to the issue. They focus on “social justice” among adults and worry about the deep divisions we have in society. They see little connection between what’s happening in society at large and what’s happening in daycare, kindergartens, and elementary schools. But in a way, the divisions in society are apparent the moment people speak. There’s an omnipresent rift.

The Henry Higgins problem exists even in modern America. It exists in every culture and every language. Mind you, the issue isn’t accent (how words are pronounced), but dialect (word choice and sentence construction).

See whether you can find a connection here: in 1981, I attended a lecture at Oxford University given by a radical guest lecturer: he asserted that he wouldn’t rest easy until all Oxford and Cambridge colleges were razed to the ground. “If this education isn’t available to everyone,” he asserted, “it should be available to no one.”

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