Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Grammar Policies Masquerading as Rules

As a college English professor, I find that many students come to the classroom full of grammar "rules" that they have been admonished to live by. Clearly traumatized by the blood-red ink on their essays and by indecipherable abbreviations such as awk scribbled in said pen blood, these students are greatly surprised when I tell them that it's okay to, say, split an infinitive. This surprise is quickly followed by wide-eyed panic as students leap to the conclusion that either their tight-bunned English schoolmarms of yesteryear lied to them or that my summer sausage has completely fallen off my cracker.

I suppose I see English teachers residing on a continuum: At one extreme are what I call the grammar purists (instructors who are unforgiving of broken--or even slightly bent--grammar "rules," no matter how nonsensical or archaic); at the other extreme, grammar organicists (instructors who see grammar as a language structure that changes and develops as society changes the language). In other words, a purist would scarcely survive being in a room where someone says, "It just ain't right," whereas an organicist wouldn't even blink an eye at the contraction that has been in the language since the early 1700s. A language purist would experience a massive coronary if her child said, "And I went, 'you're so lame,'" whereas an organicist would understand that went is youth-speak for said.

I see myself as a sort of grammar moderate, falling between the two extremes, probably because I recognize that since our grammar is essentially a language structure imposed upon English from Latin, it doesn't always work as well as it should. In fact, if one adheres strictly to grammar rules, we would all be walking around saying things like "A grammar handbook is something without which one cannot be." Come again? Adhering strictly to grammar rules often leads to difficult-to-interpret sentences, awkward phrasing, and unlovely language. I recognize that sometimes it is better to bend the grammar "rules" (or at times, break them) in order to achieve clarity, special emphasis, or just be able to hold a normal conversation with an audience without seeming overly formal. Additionally, language is organic--it changes over time--and therefore the grammar rules we once lived with may be a bit outdated.

So, by now you are probably wondering why I've been writing "rules" in quotation marks. I've done that because many purists will teach students grammar "rules" when what they are really teaching them are grammar policies--or rather, policies of style--designed to create clarity and help students avoid more serious grammatical problems.

For example, one grammar policy that is often promoted as a "rule" is that one shouldn't begin a sentence with the words and or but. And yet, one can begin a sentence with and or but that is grammatically correct--as I have done in this sentence. But English teachers have a reason for instituting this policy: following this policy prevents students from writing certain kinds of fragmented sentences, such as

Outside, it was raining. And snowing.

The second sentence isn't really a sentence at all--it's a sentence fragment, and should be combined with the first sentence:

Outside, it was raining and snowing.

Because instructors teach such policies as "rules," students avoid committing these grammatical sins, only to find in college that some of their instructors (although not all) encourage them to break the rules. It doesn't mean their previous English instructors were bad, or wrong, or even out to get them; rather, it was a way to ensure that the students stopped committing grammatical suicide.

Here are a few grammar policies that my students have faunched over:

  • Never begin a sentence with and or but.
  • Never split an infinitive.
  • Never dangle your participles.
Do any of these sound familiar to you? Have you been taught certain grammar "rules," only to find out later that they were actually policies? Share your story! Or, if you have a grammar question, feel free to post that, too. You never know--I might actually do a complete post about it!

1 comment:

Diane said...

I knew that you could begin a sentence with "and" or "but", however did not know it could be acceptable to split an infinitive, or dangle a participle... even though I'm sure I'm guilty of both at times.

I agree that as the language changes the rules may also change. :-)