On my way to class one day at Michigan State, I encountered Roger Meiners, in whose class I had studied Roethke, Lowell, Berryman, and Jarrell. I asked him where he was headed, and he said, "I'm off to teach "Prufrock" for the twelfth time." Beat. "When are they ever going to figure it out?"
I get the same feeling as I write this blog. After trying to establish, patiently and thoroughly, for dozens of times a sensible understanding about English usage, there is always someone for whom the demolition of some usage superstition is big, unsettling news.
It happened yesterday on Facebook, where my worthy colleague Mike Jarboe posted that Grammarly.com joke about the can/may distinction. You know it: Teacher insists that Can I? means "Am I able to?" and May I? means "Do I have permission to?" Mouthy student ridicules the distinction as pedantic and pretentious.
One commenter displays distress, and the same understandings you always encounter in these operations come out:
That's a rule.
That's what I was taught.
The standard written English I was taught is correct, and everything else, in speech or writing, is incorrect.
When people violate this rule, it shows that no one is properly educated any more.
If this one rule is abandoned, all English grammar and usage will go down to the dust, leaving us as grunting mammals.
If you dispute this rule, you have gone over to the Other Side, betraying civilization, and soon we will all be grunting &c., &c.
I understand this viewpoint from the inside. As a child, I was an earnest student, a teacher's pet, and an insufferable prig. What I was taught had to be correct, and I meant to be correct; so I not only wrote but talked like a schoolroom grammar book. In rural Kentucky in the 1960s. My classmates thought that I was a piece of work, and they were on the money. (No need to seek sworn testimony.) Later, as a graduate student in English, I was an insufferable snob as well as a prig. Then I was a heavy-handed tyro copy editor.
The saving grace is that I was, and am, curious and interested in learning new things. I began to come across books and authorities that broadened my understanding of the language, and the encounters with readers of this blog has been a further education. I began the effort of liberating myself from nonsense and snobbery, a continuing effort.*
Now I repeat, patiently and thoroughly, to the distressed some things they really need to know:
Standard written English is one form of the language.
Standard written English is not more correct than the other Englishes.
A great deal of substandard formal written English is not "incorrect," but merely unskillful.
There are rules, but there are also conventions, subject to change, and superstitions.
Much of what people remember from schoolroom grammar is dated, oversimplified, and sometimes flat wrong.
Insistence on obsolete or ill-grounded "rules" produces a starchy English that sounds increasingly artificial and removed from the way that people, not just colloquially but in the published work of reputable established writers, use the language.
There are links to my previous posts, to the work of linguists and other language bloggers, to authoritative books on usage, all readily available to anyone willing to be informed.
None of this is new.
And still people insist on making the old exploded arguments.
When are they ever going to figure it out?
*I still talk in pretty much in the same affected way as I write, except for the swearing. (As I have said, the making of newspapers, like the driving of mules, cannot be accomplished without swearing. How they manage at The Christian Science Monitor and L'Osservatore Romano I have no idea.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun