[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

A Linguistics-Based Approach to Teaching Prescriptive Grammar

Deborah Schaffer
Eastern Montana College

In some ways it must have been easier teaching English fifty or sixty years ago: traditional grammar analysis was codified and familiar, and just about everyone, both teachers and students, knew what to expect, especially after years of experience with grammar texts and classes. At the same time, of course, few people really worried about whether that traditional analysis was accurate or not, or whether it was the most helpful approach to teaching students about language structure, or whether speakers of minority dialects were unfairly disadvantaged in their education. Traditional grammar was comfortable, and more than that it smacked of tradition, of holy truths passed on from educated generation to educated generation. What can be more reassuring than the knowledge that a Bishop Robert Lowth or a Lindley Murray has set down the final word on grammar and usage, and that 200 years' worth of students have met and been molded by that single view of English? Clearly, people still feel this way, or Edwin Newman, John Simon, and William Safire would not have been able to build a good part of their careers on their roles as "guardians of English" (i.e., bemoaning the inevitable changes that languages go through over time and taking writers to task for not maintaining arbitrarily chosen, 200-year-old shibboleths).

The development of modern linguistics in the 19th and 20th centuries, of course, disturbed the placid waters of grammar teaching, at least for those seriously concerned about understanding the nature of language in general and syntax in particular, as well as those who wished to find better ways to teach composition. While at first few teachers tried to apply linguistic theories of language structure to grammar instruction, awareness of such theories and of general linguistic attitudes towards language phenomena, especially in the past two or three decades, has become more widespread among language arts professionals who are not themselves linguists per se. One can see the increased importance of linguistics reflected in the growing number of language-arts teacher-training programs which require their students to take a number of linguistics courses, and also in the publication of linguistics-related articles in English journals and their presentation at English conferences (for example, by Patrick Bassett, Timothy Reagan, William Woods, and a number of others cited by Patrick Hartwell, 105-06)--not to mention a slew of linguistically-oriented materials for language teachers disseminated by the Center for Applied Linguistics and NCTE (e.g., by Gaudalupe Valdes-Fallis, Genelle Morain, Constance Weaver, Candy Carter, and others).

This trend is praiseworthy: it recognizes that teachers who know something about the structural, psychological, and social aspects of languages (as established through scientific investigation) will be able to communicate their subject matter more effectively and deal with various language-related problems that could arise in the classroom (the example of dialect differences coming immediately to mind; I will return to this point later). And yet this increased linguistic sophistication of language-arts teachers leads paradoxically to a considerable dilemma: while the teachers may be enlightened in dealing with language in the classroom, very often school administrators, parents, and other curriculum planners are not. That is, even though increasing numbers of English teachers are trying to focus their classes on what research suggests are the most useful information and activities for their students, presenting their material in as accurate, nonjudgmental, and persuasive a fashion as possible, the powers that be in school systems still very frequently insist on highly regimented, prescriptive, traditional curricula, most likely because many parents and educators alike consider it important (a sound education, after all, includes the basics). Thus, Patrick Bassett says (55), "The public expects the English teacher to teach some conventional principles of language and composition (the highest priority of all secondary school training according to the most recent 1980 Gallup Poll of Educational Issues)."

Of course, this expectation can be in part a backlash against the permissive, nontraditional schooling of the 1960s; consider, for example, the classic post hoc reasoning in Flora Johnson's saying (96) in 1980 that "the New Grammar has been popular in educational circles for about 25 or 30 years, and in that time American mastery of formal English has steadily declined. Today, many Americans can neither read nor write. Might there not be some connection?" However, in many parts of the country (Montana, in my own experience), this attitude has apparently survived social and academic changes, probably for both monetary and philosophical reasons (i.e., the feeling seems to be that changing curricula and materials could not only cost money, but could also result in poorer language skills if emphasis is shifted away from traditional areas). Moreover, the majority of English teachers themselves, according to Bassett (58), still favor including at least some prescriptive grammar in their curriculum (this in spite of evidence that grammar instruction of any kind does not help improve writing skills appreciably; see Monroe 392-93, Braddock et al. 37-38, Petrosky 86-88, Weaver 85-87 and 88-90, Hartwell 105, and many others).

What this means for teachers, in practical terms, is that to varying degrees their course materials and content are dictated to them (whether with their approval or not), and any innovations they bring to classes (if allowed) will be in addition to what is expected, not in place of it. I am not prepared here to argue the merits of either this sort of centralized educational planning or more autonomous curricula; rather, I would prefer to take up one very specific question that arises from the situation: what can a linguistically knowledgeable English teacher do to reconcile demands that she teach traditional, prescriptive grammar with her own desire to represent accurately spoken and written English, based on modern linguistic research on the subjects?

On the most basic level, I am referring to those individual restrictions on syntactic constructions and word usage that have been used, as mentioned earlier, as shibboleths for the educated. Some have virtually dropped from even the most hard-core prescriptivist's inventory (does anyone distinguish will and shall for future tense in the way that 17th-century grammarian John Wallis did? Wallace Chafe [98] suggests not); others, such as the insistence on "It is I" or the can/may distinction, are still cherished like museum pieces (which, metaphorically speaking, they are); but none are adhered to in speech by the vast majority of English speakers. These rules, then, can be distinguished from prescriptive mechanics-related rules rules, such as those dealing with punctuation; the latter, at least, cannot reliably be equated to any specific features of spoken language, and so are seen as exclusive and basically useful conventions or writing, whereas the former are connected to speech by many people, to the extent that speakers are criticized for failing to use rules that have been only (if ever) used by writers.

The hardest part of this situation has to be finding, both for the teacher and for the students, convincing justifications for spending time dealing with these unintuitive prescriptive rules. For me, the best arguments are based on social factors which shape language use and attitudes. That is, if we recognize that knowledge of these rules is looked at as a sign of education, which in turn is a highly valued, prestigious factor in employment and certain social situations, then learning those rules can perhaps be accepted with as much equanimity as the necessity of spending good money on business clothes (these rules in effect being the dress clothes--or dress code--of writing and, to some extent, formal speech). As Bassett says:

A truth of life is that a substantial number of people in our culture still expect communication to be addressed in standard English. Those people are likely to reject whatever message is intended if the image the message carries is inappropriate. Thus, the goal of teaching prescriptive rules of standard English is to give to all students a flexibility to conduct a discourse in whatever terms the specific situation requires. (59)

One might look at standard, formal written English, then, as the lingua franca of professional America.

This is a reasonable, practical approach (see also Reagan 9-10), in spite of what such language revolutionaries as James Sledd and Wayne O'Neil say, and really the only one to take, since there are no purely linguistic grounds for learning these rules. That is, one cannot say they are using "correct" English, since historically many never were used by native English speakers and few are now acquired naturally (i.e., through normal child language acquisition); nor can one make specious claims of linguistic superiority for them or say they somehow improve English, since any variety of any true language is as successful communicatively (within the group) as any other; it is only in terms of social goals that different varieties of language may have different degrees of success. Of course, many people do make such claims: consider the attitude implied by saying that "standard English is not a dialect but the mother-tongue, a language that is infinitely more rich, varied, and precise than any variant or dialect" (Bassett 59, paraphrasing Christopher Clausen), a view that is obviously both ethnocentrically biased/elitist and linguistically ignorant (John Simon and Richard Mitchell are two other "grammar fascists" who display the same faults to much greater degree).

If students can understand these facts, and can accept them as important, then they should find it easier to motivate themselves to learn the rules. Not all will accept the situation, of course, and that is really their decision, as long as they realize how they may be penalized, academically and socially, for not playing the game. Certainly, it will be easier to accept the rules as extra details to be added or substituted into their language use in certain situations than as mysterious entities to be memorized because of unidentifiable superior qualities, or because of flat demands from the teacher, without explanation of when their use would be appropriate or effective.

Moreover, presenting the rules in their historical and social context can actually arouse the interest of students and establish a useful sense of conspiracy between students and teachers: we can see how the rules were introduced into the language; we can see how silly some of them are (and, in fact, presenting such rules humorously can help maintain interest); and once they are learned, we can flaunt them as trivia or as the mark of education, as needed. In this connection, Sterling Leonard presents a quite thorough comparison of dicta put forth by a host of 18th-century prescriptive grammarians, including an excellent appendix listing various grammatical and usage rules, with the authorities who supported and condemned each rule. (Another excellent reference for English teachers who want more ideas about how to incorporate linguistics into their teaching is The Teaching of High School English by J.N. Hook and William Evans.)

To illustrate the approach I am advocating, I will start with the future tense will/shall rule mentioned earlier. According to Pyles and Algeo (206), the rule, as formulated by John Wallis in the 17th century, dictates that will should be used for nonemotional future second- and third-person forms, while shall is used for first person, unless there are overtones of "emphasis, willfulness, or insistence," in which case the persons are reversed (i.e., will for first person, shall for the rest). Now, clearly, this situation does not correspond to actual English usage, and never did: historically, both verbs implied futurity, with will expressing intention and shall obligation, but when they both came to be used quite freely for simple future constructions, certain prescriptivists felt the need to distinguish them, however arbitrarily. As it happens, nowadays shall seems to have disappeared almost entirely from American English, with will used almost exclusively for the future tense, so the rule is even more unnatural to implement than it was two hundred years ago.

In my experience, students who are told of this rule find it amusing and indicative of the extremes reached by prescriptivists; it serves, then, to set up other minimally justifiable rules which nevertheless have greater value as current English shibboleths. Students are asked to recognize that these latter rules are really no more valid as depictions of spoken English patterns than was the will/shall rule, but that social factors have led to their being more popular today.

Such is the case for three more rules: the double-negative rule, the split-infinitive rule, and the clause-final preposition rule. First, double negatives, which are found through all stages of English (cf. Chaucer's quadruple negative in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 70-71: "He never yet no vileynye ne sayde / In al his lif unto no maner wight" [Pyles and Algeo 211], and Shakespeare's "Man delights not me: no, nor woman, neither" from Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 3), were originally banned based on the misapplied logic that "two negatives destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative" (Bishop Robert Lowth, qtd. in Myers and Hoffman 216). Even though a number of English dialects still consistently use double negatives perfectly intelligibly, as do most English speakers on at least some occasions, the ban on them is quite strong for more formal uses of standard American and British English, so there is good reason to know the rule.

Nevertheless, students can recognize how arbitrary it is, even in its attempt to make English more logical, and those students who have studied foreign languages, such as Spanish and French, which require two-part negative constructions (as in "No tengo nada" 'I don't know nothing,' and "Je ne sais rien" 'I don't know nothing,' respectively) can see the absurdity of the rule especially clearly (see also Reagan [9] on this point).

The rationale of the split-infinitive rule is, if anything, even more ludicrous than that of the double-negative rule. According to the Ohio State University Linguistics Department's Language Files, English through most of its history made use of a two-word infinitive structure consisting of the preposition "to" plus a form of the verb (now the simple, uninflected form), and writers commonly separated the two parts, most often with adverbs. The ban against this splitting of the infinitive arose in the 18th century when grammarians, who considered Latin structure the model for all other languages, observed that Latin infinitives were never broken up. Of course, Latin infinitives were single words identified by their inflectional suffixes--consider describere 'to describe'--and since Latin does not make use of infixes, it has no way to split such a form (24). Neither English nor Latin prohibits separating entire words by inserting other words between them, but this lack of parallelism evidently failed to catch the attention of these grammarians. And so another puzzling and counterintuitive rule is explained, to the general amusement (perhaps even relief) today's English speakers.

Analogous in its specious beginnings to the split-infinitive rule is the clause-final preposition rule. Here again, a pattern which has always been commonly used in English, placing prepositions last in relative and interrogative clauses, was banned because it was observed to be un-Latin, thus forcing those speakers who care into sometimes incredibly awkward constructions; witness the famous anecdote about Winston Churchill, upon being chided for ending a memorandum's sentence with a preposition, responding, "Sir, this is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put" (Reagan 9).

Moreover, the rule's credibility is further impeached, as is illustrated in the Churchill example, by frequent attempts to apply it to the second elements of verb-adverb constructions (as in sit down) or phrasal verbs such as make up or turn out. In the former case, the proposition-like word is clearly functioning adverbially, while in the second, it is simply part of the verb, part of an idiom (see Kolln 325-28, and earlier, for a discussion of these constructions and the clause-final preposition rule). After reviewing this complicated corner of English grammar, teachers may well decide to omit classroom discussion of the constructions as well as the rule, but if forced to it, at least a structural analysis of the three separate uses of prepositions or preposition-like words following verbs might help students achieve a more sensical application of the preposition rule.

Now, in contrast to the four totally arbitrary and unnatural grammar restrictions just discussed, there is another group of rules that, while still relatively unfamiliar to many people today, can perhaps be justified more reasonably than can the first group. That is, the majority of the prescriptive rules that are insisted upon actually were accurate descriptions of English patterns at one time, but are now held onto as valued archaisms that no longer reflect common (much less universal) usage. One of the hallmarks of formalism, especially in academic writing, is adherence to tradition--here, archaic language patterns; this is simply a manifestation of a widespread conservatism that equates change with deterioration, not just in language, of course, but throughout a culture (consider Edwin Newman et al. again). We can consider this attitude ridiculous from a linguistic standpoint, since all living languages inevitably change, but nevertheless we have to recognize that the powers that be do share this attitude, and do well to make these archaisms part of their repertoire.

This is especially true for those rules which involve not truly archaic patterns, but those which are in fact still in the process of changing. Here one finds a great deal of variation: older and/or more conservative language users will still be almost exclusively using the language patterns codified in the prescriptive rule, finding them familiar and natural; younger and/or more innovative users will find the changed forms more familiar, though they will also recognize the older forms when they hear or read them, and might even use them in formal situations (although not always correctly); and the youngest or least formally educated, those with the least writing experience, might not have even encountered the older forms which are so highly valued by the first group, since speech is where innovations start and spread most widely. Eventually, the newer forms should win out, at least in speech, but in writing the older patterns will be expected and preferred indefinitely.

Examples of these archaisms include not just syntactic patterns, but also (and perhaps even more frequently) word usage. To take some syntactic examples first, consider the changes taking place in the antecedent clause of a conditional construction (the if clause in the if-then construction). Historically, the verb in this clause is in the subjunctive mood, which basically translates into plural past tense forms: "If I were a rich man (then I wouldn't have to work hard)"; "If he had known (then he would have done something)." The change either replaces the subjunctive forms with the regular indicative verb forms, or uses the same conditional forms in the antecedent clause as are used in the consequent clause: "If I was a rich man..."; "If he would have known...." These latter forms are very common in speech, and have appeared in print, but are still frowned upon by any number of prescriptivists.

Other syntactic changes involve subject and object pronoun forms. First, there is the well-known (but frequently misunderstood) rule that the pronoun form following the linking verb be should be subjective: "It is I," not "It is me"; the latter is, of course, more common, and has been for quite some time. A seemingly opposite confusion, perhaps triggered by hyper-correction based on the first rule (but still treatable as a change in case uses of pronoun forms, e.g., by Frank Parker and Kathryn Riley), is the use of subject pronoun forms in compound object noun/pronoun phrases (i.e., coming after prepositions or transitive verbs), as in "between he and I" or "He scolded Sue and me." Clearly, speakers are losing sight of the functions of the subjective vs. objective pronoun forms, though most of their uses are still consistent (as subjects or as simple objects of verbs and prepositions); these changes are simply continuing a simplification of the English pronoun system that has been progressing since Old English.

An even better-known change in pronoun case forms which is in keeping with the one just described is the virtually total loss of whom as an object form of who; very few teachers, much less other English speakers, bother to use whom in speech or writing. It is used, of course, as object of verb or preposition in relative or interrogative constructions, but most of us use who invariantly where such a pronoun is called for, and thus many students have no idea (or a mistaken idea) of how it actually functions. This is, then, another rule that they might actually enjoy mastering to show off, though its usefulness might be less than that of other rules mentioned. Still, learned in conjunction with the clause-final preposition rule, it will allow them to employ sentences of such contrasting formality as "I asked who you were looking for" and "I asked for whom you were looking."

Word usage, as mentioned earlier, also provides grist for the mill of prescriptivism. Obvious examples include the distinctions between can and may (can for ability, may for permission); lay and lie (lay being the transitive verb form, lie intransitive); imply and infer (imply taking as subject the situation which gives rise to the concluded information, infer taking as subject the person drawing a conclusion from that information); and numerous others that can be found in any handbook of English. But the word-usage shibboleth which to me best illustrates an irrationality similar to that involved in the syntactic rules already described, and which therefore can be used in the same way (to amuse students while clarifying the rule for their use), is that banning the word ain't. The history of attitudes about this word can be used by itself to epitomize prescriptivism at its most absurd; as Marckwardt so aptly says, ain't is the "perennial bete noir of the linguistically squeamish" (52).

Historically, according to Pyles and Algeo, ain't originated in the late 17th century as a contraction for am/are/is not, spelled an't and pronounced [aent]; the shift to ain't started in the late 18th century. Two phonological changes in British English at that time, the shift of [ae] to [a] (as in dance [dans] ) and the loss of preconsonantal [r], made an't homophonous with aren't, thus contributing to the view that aren't I is a more proper form than ain't I (204), but also helping to explain why ain't was commonly used by people of all social classes and educational levels in at least some situations, as testified to by Pyles and Algeo, and is even today used by more people than prescriptivists would like to think (205).

So here is a form which evolved naturally, but which for some reason became negatively marked to such an extent that many people could not even discuss it reasonably. This claim is perfectly illustrated by the flap over Webster's Third New International Dictionary and its fairly descriptive treatment of vocabulary in general, and ain't in particular. Marckwardt explains the actually conservative descriptivism employed: he quotes the dictionary as saying, "Though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, [ain't is] used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers, especially in the phase 'ain't I'" (53), which hardly advocates use of ain't or expresses any sort of approval. Moreover, elsewhere the dictionary does use rather prescriptive labels, including substandard (53). Marckwardt also discusses how the current approach did not really differ from that taken by earlier editions of the dictionary (which were left quite uncriticized), and how critics (including many journalists) vehemently attacked the editors for even including ain't, much less failing to condemn it, an attack made without an adequate understanding of the dictionary's goals--or, indeed, of linguistics and language change in general (50-55). In sum, ain't is condemned for purely social reasons, as are other language forms, but without language users even being aware of what motivates them.

It is certainly true that we would not want to spend a great deal of class time explaining the origins of all these grammar and usage rules, especially given the negative views of the rules' helpfulness in improving writing skills (see references mentioned earlier). Many of us would prefer to ignore them altogether, but if we have no choice about that, we're likely to explain the rules quickly and get on to more important things, such as actual writing or reading practice (or the more recognizably useful grammatical and mechanical conventions). Still, a discussion of the history of at least some of the more bizarre rules would be useful not only in perhaps amusing students and thereby making it easier for them to remember restrictions, but also in highlighting the factors external to language which influence its use, notably social and educational factors. Again, we set up pragmatic reasons for learning the less obviously useful but still valued characteristics of formal, written, standard English, appealing to students' concerns about employability, social prestige, and even historical significance (since increased understanding of nuances of 19th- and 20th-century literary and historical writing can be gained through awareness of older prescriptive rules--consider the attitude conveyed by the verb choice in the last line of the Gettysburg Address: "and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth"). By pointing out that grammars of English were first written to answer concerns about these very factors (i.e., as guides to upper-class, prestigious patterns of British English), perhaps we can put what is asked of our students in perspective.

In addition, in the arena of social influence on language, there is at least one other major form of prescriptivism that tends to be so taken for granted that we foster it without realizing that it is as linguistically absurd as grammar and usage prescriptivism, and even more potentially harmful to students' motivation and self-esteem (especially if it is confused with the other two types). I am referring, of course, to prescriptivism about dialects, which indeed partly underlies the other two forms.

There has already been a great deal of useful discussion about the treatment of nonstandard dialects in the schools (see studies by William Labov, Wayne O'Neil, James Sledd, Candy Carter, et al., Timothy Reagan, etc.), but the central points bear repeating here. Specifically, while a standard dialect is undoubtedly useful in standardizing educational materials, and is probably socially unavoidable (since one social group will always gain more prestige than others), its high standing must not be equated with linguistic superiority of any kind, as has happened all too often in the past. In their words, traditional dialect prescriptivism has taken the form of telling students to use this or that dialect form because it is "correct" or "better" than patterns in other dialects (which were not even recognized as valid, grammatical systems in their own right; for a recent and rather dismaying example of this attitude, see Mitchell 185-88; and even Bassett, who purports to be knowledgeable in linguistics, shows a little of this attitude [59]). Such an attitude can have serious, negative effects on students' education not only in classroom activities but also in language testing and assessment, if prescriptive biases are not screened from constructing and evaluating the tests (see Milroy and Milroy 157-74).

What I am recommending teachers do in offering practical reasons for learning certain formal, prescriptive rules of grammar and usage can be extended to the entire issue of learning the standard dialect, all the more so as some of these rules are characteristic of the spoken standard, though many more are frozen remnants of a basically artificial written construct. Most students will already speak an "acceptable" variant of the standard, but even they can benefit from learning about other dialects, how they arise, what characterizes them, and what factors influence the selection of one dialect as a preferred variety. Hopefully (and I use this shibboleth deliberately), students and teachers can become more tolerant in their attitudes towards other dialects, towards casual speech forms, and so on, even while recognizing the reasons for learning the prescribed language forms required of them by school curricula. An open class discussion of some of the attitudes and assumptions expressed by such authors as Mitchell, Sledd, O'Neil, Bassett, etc., could be a dynamic way to begin consideration of grammar and dialects along the lines I have just suggested.

In short, while a linguistic approach to teaching grammar may involve more effort, more gray areas, than the traditional method, its benefits should make up for the extra time spent learning about the history of English grammar and explaining its complexities to students. There can be no guarantee that all students will be suddenly eager to learn the rules and employ them, but surely some will be interested in knowing why they're being asked to do it, others should feel less insecure or inadequate about the perceived failings of their own language use, and most should at least appreciate the teacher's honesty, an appreciation which might even lead to a lessening of alienation or resistance, if not a real heightening of motivation. Moreover, if teachers follow this path while also integrating grammar discussion into student writing activities (see Weaver 88-97, Veit 257-63, Vavra 42-48, and others, for ideas), they might see actual application of their grammar theory to students' writing practice.

Arguments about these and other aspects of grammar instruction will no doubt go on into the far future, but one thing, at least, is clear. As long as teachers are required (or want) to teach grammar, they might as well keep striving not just for successful techniques of classroom instruction, but for a philosophy of instruction that both teachers and students can accept.


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[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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