Welcome, English teachers
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To anyone who thinks that English is in a bad way because of texting and the Facebook, and that the way to reverse this is more grammar in school, I say, please, get off my lawn. Because you clearly don’t know anything about language and you don’t understand why the kind of grammar instruction we associate with schools should be left behind, not expanded.
I’m all for teaching about language, if it means teaching how we do things with words. But grammar is taught mostly as a set of out-of-date facts to be memorized and a list of do’s and don’ts to be followed blindly. Grammar either inspires fear in students, because it seems hard, like quadratic equations or push ups, or it produces catatonia as thirty sets of eyes glaze over at the mere mention of a split infinitive. Actually, the latter response might not be so bad, since pretty much everything schools teach about grammar is wrong.
Grammar lessons tend to be a mix of flat-earth grammar and faith-based grammar, a deadly combo that perpetuates myths about language instead of encouraging students to engage with the complexities that make our words fun to use and fascinating to study.
Flat-earth grammar ignores everything we’ve learned about language in the last century, which is actually quite a lot. Scientists have been busy engaging students with evolution, the big bang, dinosaurs, and climate change, while for too many English teachers, a noun remains the name of a person, place, or thing, a way of looking at the “parts of speech” that would have seemed just right to Aristotle but that linguists abandoned some time ago as simplistic and inadequate. If Aristotle, who believed that the sun revolved around the earth, suddenly woke up in a modern classroom, he would be mystified by today’s physics and biology, but he’d be right at home with our version of flat-earth grammar, assuming he wasn’t deported midway through the lesson on using can and may correctly because he overstayed his visa and couldn’t speak English.
Faith-based grammar is even worse. At least flat-earth grammar tries to analyze language. But faith-based grammar is nothing but a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, like the Ten Commandments, only you need to follow a whole lot more than ten if you want to get right with the gods of grammar (it also helps if you can chant the rules for using shall and will, even if those rules only exist in grammar books, not in the language people really use). Here are some of the more common rules: don’t start a sentence with and; don’t end a sentence with a preposition; don’t use literally figuratively; don’t say I when you’re writing, ever; and avoid the passive voice. I call these grammar rules faith based because they are a matter of belief, not reason. Because breaking these rules is treated as a sin. And because most people who preach these rules don’t actually follow them.
As a teacher, my goal for grammar is to get students to view language as a complex human phenomenon full of variables that change with time and circumstance, and to try to figure out what some of those variables are and how they work. This approach to grammar has no practical value: it won’t get you into law school; it can’t be measured on a standardized test; and it won’t improve your speech or writing. But it will help you understand the world around you, which is full of language, so it’s something everyone should learn in school.
To be considered educated today you have to know that matter consists of atoms and molecules, not a mixture of earth, wind, fire, and water. You have to know that disease is caused by microbes and spontaneous mutations and environmental hazards, not by too much black or yellow bile, or blood, or phlegm. There’s no place for the four elements and the four humors in today’s curriculum—except to help us understand our intellectual history—and the only reason to study equally-outdated and backward language myths about split infinitives and the passive voice and the privileging of someone’s speech over someone else’s is to understand how these myths create the language attitudes that our schools should expose and eradicate, not reinforce.
Oh, and I know you didn’t ask, but English is not in decline, texting and tweets are not bad for our moral or intellectual health, and Facebook has no definite article in front of it. That said, I still want you off my lawn.