Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.
HomeManifestoePublishingCreditsPast Issues

By James Dempsey
Worcester, MA, USA

James Dempsey

The first thing I tell my college writing students is that I'm going to teach them all how to write good. The exceptional students among you, I go on, will be taught how to write wicked good.

Reactions vary to this introduction. Some students respond with smiles ranging from the wry to the delighted – this group usually does well in the course. Some are shocked, even a little outraged – this group is often less advanced than the first, but is still largely teachable. There is a third group, which doesn't react at all, and I have found that it is these students who will make me earn my meager salary over the semester.

Student writers benefit from a thorough exposure to what we call "bad" grammar. They often don't get this until college (and sometimes not even then, depending upon their instructors), which is perhaps one of the many reasons that so few students come to college with a developed sense of irony.

The point of discussing, explaining, and even using "bad" grammar is not merely to drive home the "right" way of writing, although this may be a useful side-effect. It's to help students understand that the language they use in their college papers, resumes, job applications, love poems, internet posts, tweets, IMs and Facebook comments is in fact a vast, ever-changing, multi-climated, diversified ecology, and the so-called "rules of grammar" that we employ in trying to understand each other are not commandments sent down from a deity on the mountain, but are rather temporary consensual agreements. Language is a bloody mess. There is nothing wrong with celebrating this fact. And if teachers of writing and communication teach nothing but grammar, they end up the academic equivalent of the cat-lady who spends her days picking up cat-poop and scrubbing pee-stains from the carpet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Geoffrey Chaucer

Lewis Carroll

Some frown upon my having this point of view. After all, I'm an English professor, an author, a novelist, and a journalist. I make my living by putting words together in such a way as to make people want to read them, and to read them with interest and pleasure. I'm the kind of person that people tend to seek out to arbitrate disagreements over usage and meaning. Who or whom? Shall or will? Can you start a sentence with but? It is I or It is me? Is literally used correctly here? Often, my responses to these questions of usage disappoint both sides for the simple reason that I often consider both points of view equally right and equally wrong, depending upon such matters as situation, context, and register. (And I must admit to getting some perverse pleasure in not taking a side in these arguments. When both sides go away unhappy, I feel the grim satisfaction that is no doubt felt by a divorce mediator, or by a butcher ripping a band saw down a pig's spine. It may not be pretty, but I have done my job.)

People don't always appreciate such relativity, of course. Something should be right or wrong, they feel. How can we communicate with each other if we can't even agree on the proper way to speak our language? And, truth to tell, I would largely concur that it is helpful to have a consensus among the majority of users as to what is correct and what ain't. But applying a set of rules rigidly in order to produce "good English" without giving consideration to the slippery and lovely animal that is our language is an endeavor destined for disappointment. It also makes for pretty dull reading, and, as a pedagogical philosophy, will alienate all but the grammar-nerd.

I find it astonishing indeed that bad grammar still exists at all, having enjoyed so little support over the millennia. Its foes, meanwhile, are always legion. School marms, village explainers, professors, academics, pundits, grammarians, columnists, and self-styled defenders of the language have over the course of history mounted a ceaseless attack on Bad English, often reinforced today by the kind of useful idiots whose Facebook posts spank us all for using the word irregardless, mistaking their for there, or misusing less and fewer. Indeed, it's a frigging industry. The internet is lousy with web sites on the subject. College professors are bombarded yearly with review copies of textbooks that doll up Old Lady Grammar in sexy new outfits. Every so often, along comes a cross-over book on grammar that achieves great popularity by taking us all to task for our sloppy habits of speaking and writing. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves was one such recent success. Strunk and White's Elements of Style is another that has achieved a remarkable level of acceptance, even reverence. And of course, other lovers of good grammar enjoy nothing so much as to comb through such books for grammatical errata. Such a mountain of misdirected effort.

Writers of jingles, slogans, and other commercials, being unashamedly in it for the money ("it" being the production of what they unemotionally call "copy") have long used the tactic of stooping to subliteracy in order to conquer an audience. Consider the enduring popularity of the old "Got milk?" slogan. (What is it about milk that encourages grammatical scofflaws? From my own childhood came another lactic catchphrase, "Drinka pinta milka day," which sent English teachers into apoplexy.) Think Different? Live Adventurous? I'm Lovin' It.

I lived in the United Kingdom through my formative years, and came to the States as a young adult to earn my bread teaching composition while I studied for a master's degree. After arriving in the New World, I soon discovered that simply having an English accent afforded me enormous unearned respect as regards usage and grammar. (I suspect this was also the reasoning of the institution that hired me, which no doubt saved a lot of money by having composition courses taught by impecunious graduate students rather than full professors.) This American self-loathing I found a sad state of affairs. Back in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson was similarly grumbling about the inferiority complex of his countrymen that made them look to Europe, to Mother England, in particular, as the standard for literary works. To a great extent, this still obtains. And just as there are still American who look to the Queen's English as the true form of the language, there are those in England who regard American English as an insult, who shudder on hearing a railway termed a "railroad" and who think the words "aluminum"  "disassemble" should be stricken from the dictionary. They are both utterly wrong.

I teach at an engineering school, and I have found that many of the students are fond of using quasi-technical explanations for the rules of usage. Take, for instance, the double negative, as in the sentence "I'm not going nowhere." A technical-minded grammarian might use the rules of mathematics and employ the rule that two negatives create a positive. "Aha! If you're not going nowhere, you must be going somewhere, right?" Well, no. If you take the time to read the words of the Father of English, Geoffrey Chaucer, you will find him using the double, triple, and even quadruple negative with gusto, as well as smashing many of the rules we today find indispensable. Which proves that rules do indeed change, and, ergo, all rules can change. (I would add, somewhat more controversially, that they should change. But that's another column.)

So, to use a despicable and illogical phrase, here's a teachable moment. Rules of grammar are not of adamant. We just make them up as we go along. What we think are rules are actually metaphors that explain a point of usage in such a way that we can remember it and so pass it on unthinkingly to the next generation. Seen this way, grammar is thus a huge trope that attempts (often poorly) to reflect the language we speak and write, to put some restraints on the mess of hot air, hums, and howls that issue from a bodily orifice also used for eating and breathing. Grammar, at its best, would perhaps be like Lewis Carroll's famous 1:1 map, which had a scale of one mile to one mile, and whose grotesque unmanageability eventually caused travelers to use the country as its own map.


James Dempsey's Profile at Stay Thirsty Publishing


James Dempsey is the author of Murphy's American Dream and the forthcoming biography,
The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer (2014).

All opinions expressed by James Dempsey are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

Thirsty Home

Stay Thirsty Store