The day of my first piano lesson, I picked out "Yankee Doodle," right hand only. It would be insane to start a beginner with one of Bach's partitas or one of Lizst's Hungarian rhapsodies. One starts simply and progresses by stages as far as one's inclination, abilities, application, and instruction go. Yet in teaching writing and editing to undergraduates, I find many who have not managed to advance very far beyond the "Yankee Doodle" stage.
I fault two things: misguided instruction and the prevalence of fussbudgetry.
Schoolroom grammar, that person-place-thing stuff you may remember, is a relic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pedagogy, heavly influenced by the models of the classical languages, and not really adequate to the purpose of explaining how English actually works. Moreover, formal instruction in grammar tends to be deadly dull, and it doesn't often appear to take. Where it continues, it is ineffective. Where it has been abandoned, nothing satisfactory has taken its place.
These defects could be remedied by a little instruction in linguistics for teachers of English and writing, and by development of more imaginative pedagogy. But the major obstacle is the persistence of fussbudgetry.
The grammatical fussbudget operates on the principle that there is only one legitimate form of English, the formal standard written dialect, and that all others are to be deplored and scorned. From this principle flows a stream of strictures, superstitions, and shibboleths.
Some of you will have had teachers on the model of the one Eudora Welty describes in One Writer's Beginnings. The young Ms. Welty and a classmate were in adjoining cubicles in the girls' restroom, making plans for the weekend, when the friend uttered the dreaded double modal, "I might could." A voice thundered, "Who--said--MIGHT--COULD?" It was Mrs. McWillie, a fourth-grade teacher, who continued, "You might as well tell me. I'm going to plant myself right here and wait till you come out. Then I'll see who it was I heard saying 'MIGHT-COULD.'"
They are still out there. They are still teaching no-stranded-prepositions and no-split-infinitives. The more progressive ones swoon over the easily misapplied advice of Strunk and White.
They are reinforced by viewing-with-alarm fussbudgets. Those who quivered with rage over the inclusion of ain't in Webster's Third International, because they saw the dictionary as legitimizing the usage rather than merely recording it, have descendents who mount to the ramparts every time the Oxford English Dictionary has the temerity to record a word they dislike. I have recently broken lances with one of them, Clark Elder Morrow of The Vocabula Review, and have attempted to demolish a compendium of bad advice widespread on the Internet. There is no end to it.
One of my teachers pointed out that it is not essential to identify the specific individuals Alexander Pope skewers in the Dunciad to get the effect of the poem, because the types replicate annually. Just so with the fussbudgets and their campaign to make writing even more artificial and difficult than it already is.
What are you, writer, editor, teacher, to do to make a stand against fussbudgetry? I suggest three steps.
1. Inform youself with reliable information about English grammar and usage.
2. Make it clear to those you work with that English exists in a variety of dialects and registers, requiring judgment to determine what is apt for audience and occasion.
3. Mark fussbudgetry when you come across it.
4. Ridicule it publicly.
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