Category Archives: Nunberg “Decline of Grammar” comments

The Evolution of Grammar: How Do We Teach It?

Grammar is often considered to be a boring and frustrating part of an English education for many students.  So many times throughout my middle and high school education grammar lessons were difficult to get through, as we often did not see the value in what we were learning.  For myself, going over “there,” “their,” and “they’re” at least twice every year was tedious, and spending entire class periods discussing when not to use contractions such as “don’t” in essay writing was a waste of time.  These were things that seemed obvious to me, and I never understood why we had to discuss it every single year.

However, in Geoffrey Nunberg’s 1997 article “The Decline of Grammar,” there is a major discussion of how the state of English grammar is declining, and what critics think should be done about it.  Almost two decades after Nunberg’s article, the issue of grammar remains an issue for critics of English as well as English teachers.  As a future teacher, I found it interesting to look at some of the reasoning given by Nunberg for the different outlooks on the evolution of grammar, as it will play a role in any future classes I teach.

Nunberg mentions how English is viewed as a “liberal” art, and yet there is a conservative slant to the issue of grammar.  For many English critics, an evolving grammatical structure to the language is a preposterous idea, and one that is harmful for future generations.  Many view the changing dynamics unfavorably, which causes dissent between those who adopt these changes and those who refuse to do so.  This struggle between two ideals can be seen in schools, where some teachers often try to enforce grammar rules and structures that are fading, while others try to adapt local grammatical structures, like vernacular and technological slang, in their classrooms.

For many students, the issue of when to use certain grammatical practices is often not properly explained.  They are not told that the way they speak with parents, friends, and even teachers is not necessarily the way they should respond to essay questions, which can hinder their chances when it comes to applications for colleges, scholarships, or future jobs.  This learning gap in regards to grammar hurts their future, and while teachers are becoming more accepting of the idea of incorporate vernaculars into their classrooms, the continuing struggle to teach proper grammar affects the students who need it most.

While I believe that language is an evolving being, and we should be teaching our students to adapt to these changes and embrace the vernaculars that are part of their cultures, there is still a gap that prevents students who do not understand the “proper” grammatical forms from succeed.  I believe that teachers, and not just the ones who deal with English, should devote class time to showing students when certain grammatical practices are necessary, and when their typical vernacular will suffice.  By creating a school setting with the same grammatical standards in each subject, students will be able to learn these rules while still using the vernaculars that are more comfortable for them.

Grammar is Language, and Language is more than Words

While grammar, when isolated, appears to be a dry, monotonous subject, I believe through different lenses we can jump start conversations that are relevant to most facets of the practical world.

Take for example, the idea of how we label people, places, events… The language we use is critical in forming the perception of these subjects.
We can use “softer” words to describe a horrible occurrence, for the sake of formality, or sparing emotions. We can extenuate a person’s characteristics to make them appear more qualifies for a position.

Are these moves wrong, morally or in terms of correctly using language? I say no, as long as we, and those on the receiving end, are aware and able to distinguish the fine line we must be careful not to cross. It may be acceptable to describe a person who is “quiet” as “introverted,” but what about “anti-social,” “off-putting,” or “inattentive?” There is a a new connotation that is conveyed.

Now the relation to grammar is that this occurs in a similar way, but on a different scale. Contractions for example, are often frowned upon in formal writing, so while they may be naturally part of the writers “style,” they must become conscious of the message they are sending. Just as incorrect grammar and punctuation can convey incorrect information ( take the classic ” Let’s eat Grandma!”), it can imply incorrect tone or cause the reader to stray from the message that was intended.

I mentioned all of this may seem less grueling through a different lens, so let’s/ let us look at the psychological implications of these issues. It’s commonly thought that language can structure the way people think. Just look at the ideas around the social and professional exclusion of certain racist/homophobic/medically misused words. Other than the pressures of our peers, how did these taboos and active language choices come to be? The root would appear to be in the attempt to reshape the way society as a whole feels and acts towards groups of people; to change how we think. 

In terms of grammar, I’s sure people will say things about how an Oxford comma certainly can not battle sexism, and that an incorrect there/their/they’re moment will not inspire a generation, but to them I say why not? Without even beginning to delve into the idea of encouraging different writing styles than the accepted “white man’s” English, it can be argued that knowledge of grammar is part of the whole package, and it is amazing how subtle something can be while still making an impact.

It is part of human nature to judge, make assumptions, and categorize different aspects of our lives. Some see it as a flaw, while it actually stems from survival instincts. So, we must learn (and teach) to play the game of writing based on purpose, with attention to the grammatical choices we make.


Expanding Circles of Conversation

In his essay “The Decline of Grammar”, Geoffrey Nunberg discusses the views of various critics that the English language is degenerating. Although his essay was published in 1997, I believe that these critics would be even more convinced of the degeneration of the English language in the current day. Nunberg responds to these criticisms on his own, but I think it’s valuable to discuss the state of the English language today as opposed to in the previous decade. We live in a time where, courtesy of the Internet and technology, people are able to broadcast their voices to large audiences with greater simplicity than ever before. In previous decades, the medium of print limited the amount of people who could share their ideas and opinions with a large group. Currently, with the various mediums of communication, there are a plethora of new voices, and consequently a plethora of different forms of the English language broadcasted to various audiences.

The basic rules of grammar and English have remained relatively consistent in certain mediums such as scholarly articles and works of literature, yet these only make up a small portion of the material we read on a daily basis. The fact of the matter is that now, more so than ever, the circles of conversation usually confined to interpersonal, direct conversation have been aided by technology, and therefore these circles of conversation have expanded. These circles of conversation become more public as opposed to private; for example, vernacular English usually confined to the home has expanded as the circles of conversation are enhanced through technology. What this may lead critics to believe is that the English language is degenerating, and that the care and attention to certain grammatical rules is slowly but surely dying. This may appear to be the case, but I do not believe the language is degenerating; I believe that these variations of the English language have existed to a degree for decades, or perhaps centuries, and it is not that the English language is changing, but that these variations of the English language are noticeable on a more public level. Therefore, I believe this degeneration is more illusory than these critics recognize, although I cannot deny that the English language has changed to a degree over the years, just not to the degree that certain critics may claim.

As Michael mentioned in his post, the purpose of language is for communication and the varying discourses and circles of conversation we participate in dictate the way we speak or write. With this fact in mind, I believe that the goal of English education should include an emphasis on the idea of conversational awareness, an awareness of the circle of conversation that an individual is in and an awareness of the type of English appropriate for this circle of conversation. I believe if people are educated in such a way, that various circles of conversation can continue to flourish without any degeneration of the English language itself. Our country is composed of many different individuals, and consequently different voices. While I do believe it is important to maintain some level of correctness in language, it is also important to allow these different voices to be expressed.

Writing Good and Why that is Considered “Good but not Great.”

“It’s Thursday! Take out your grammar books.” As the teacher says this, a bystander would probably feel the loud cacophonous student mindset of “Noooo!”, ricocheting off the walls of the classroom (however it is only stated out-loud by the audacious few). Why is grammar today so despised? Geoffrey Numberg offers that perhaps it is because “Imperfect grammar is not much of a stumbling block, even on the road to high office.” In the vernacular, he is saying that one doesn’t need perfect grammar in order to become a success story. This may be the answer as to why there is a lack of motivation among students. However, I believe that the river of detestation for grammar runs much deeper than that. I thoroughly agree with Numberg when he reflects that, “The point of traditional grammar was to demonstrate a way of thinking about grammatical problems that encouraged thoughtful attention to language, not to canonize a set of arbitrary rules and structures.” Traditional grammar reflected ones thinking. It was a way to “Update your facebook status to the world.” Through your speech, you were profiled, judged, and talked about. In the academy awarded movie, My Fair Lady, a cockney flower girl is able to improve her lexicon and her syntax significantly. This enhancement transforms her into a demure Victorian lady complete with an aristocratic accent. By changing the way she spoke, she was able to increase her social rank and hoodwink people into believing she was aristocratic.  This is what traditional grammar was. It was more than a set of rules. It was a mindset—a way of life. People that spoke beautifully were expected to be beautiful high profile members of society.

It seems that today, the point of grammar has changed from showing veneration to a way of life (and at the same time proving one’s intelligence), to a lower subspecies of rules that are followed only when convenient. To me, this reflects the period of our time. Communication is expected to be fast and instantaneous. For someone to put thought into their communication they would need time and effort. This time and effort, in today’s society, would be considered a waste. As for me, I enjoy reading Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. Can thought and effort be put into language without having immaculate grammar? I think so. However, no matter how broad minded one is, reading ,“Ta b or naw ta b dAttt IZZ da quesshuNN” must give us pause (perhaps not for the right reasons). Whether you like it or not, your syntax and your writing is a reflection of who you are.  Correct syntax is the icing to the cake of a cogent ideology.

Different Discourses

I believe that the purpose of language is for people to communicate with one another. This communication takes place on many different levels (relaxed to formal), places (home, with friends, at the work place, in the classroom), and forms (conversation, written word [creative or otherwise], music, etc.). In these several categories, different discourses will be present, whether by choice or by habit. Just because these discourses may at times differ from what is considered grammatically correct and/or traditional, this does not mean these discourses themselves are incorrect.

In his essay, “Decline of Grammar,” Nunberg questions those who argue that English language is degenerating, saying, “while it is understandable that speakers of a language with a literary tradition would tend to be pessimistic about its course, there is no more hard evidence for a general linguistic degeneration than there is reason to believe that Aaron and Rose are inferior to Ruth and Gehrig.” Nunberg reveals that he questions that argument, but also interestingly includes an allusion to baseball players Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. In this formal, extremely academic article, of which most of the readers will be academics of some sort, Nunberg subtly reveals a different discourse that he may use personally – one regarding sports and popular culture. While not explicitly having to do with the grammar of the sentence, this slight change in voice and discourse may reveal that this extremely academic linguist may not always use the academic discourse that may be expected of him… which is okay!

As an English major (though not as well known as Nunberg), I take a great deal of flack from friends at school and at home, because I am expected to know every grammar rule, spelling of words, and definition of words. What my friends don’t understand is that knowing all of that information should really be considered a super power. While reading Nunberg’s article and seeing the meticulous arguments between slight differences in wording, I realized that perhaps I would be able to spot these errors or possible errors while reading or writing, but never would I be able to catch something like that in conversation. Chances are, even if I didn’t catch a grammatical error while conversing with someone, I would understand the point he or she is trying to make, which is most important. Until people begin using language and grammar so incorrectly, as is seen quite humorously in the link, 40 Ordinary Signs that Became Suspicious When People Misused Quotations, in Katie Allen’s post, newer, different discourses that traditional linguists frankly fear are ruining language, can certainly suffice and should be welcomed.


Keeping Tradition Alive: When Grammar Actually Matters

the-most-dangerous-phraseI recently came across a quote from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper that reminded me of our in-class discussion about grammar. She says, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way.'” It’s interesting to think about how often, one of the main arguments people have about sticking to a certain way of doing something is because it is “time-tested,” or worse, based on some nostalgic sense of tradition. I believe the importance of constantly examining what we do and why we do it cannot be understated; as we evolve culturally, the “old ways” of doing various things begin to make less and less sense in light of new technologies, ideas, or understandings.

As an English Education major, I feel guilty for sometimes wondering about our practices, when perhaps the more loyal act would be accepting them wholly. For instance, in English courses we use MLA format, while in Education courses we use APA. There are no major differences between the two: they both require double-spacing with a legible font, similar margin sizes, bibliographies, in-text citations, and so on. Of course I understand the use of being able to quote from another source in order to avoid plagiarism and to give credit where credit is due, but I sometimes wonder about the necessity of the extremely rigid rules of both MLA and APA, especially for middle and high school students who are unlikely to be publishing their work. Does it matter that their works cited page is indented and spaced properly? That their in-text citation includes all authors’ names on the first occurrence, but then the first author followed by “et al.” for every other instance? Do we continue practices like these merely because we have always done them this way, or because they make the most sense and are 100% necessary?

With that being said, there are some aspects of Standard English that I find to be completely unlike this comparison of traditional practices in that I would not change them even if I had the power to do so. In his essay “The Decline of Grammar,” Geoffrey Nunberg notes that for centuries, people have worried about language because it seems to be constantly diminishing. He states that certain battles grammarians used to fight are no longer even an issue in contemporary times because the mistakes have become so commonplace, they are now accepted as being proper. For example, it used to bother some that “contact” and “process” were becoming verbs. Yet now, we are constantly changing nouns into verbs – “texting,” “trending,” and even “parenting” are phrases used by people of all classes and races. Nunberg’s argument, then, is that maybe language isn’t “diminishing” as much as it is “shifting,” and that our efforts would be better spent figuring out which aspects of the shift are worth worrying about, and I tend to agree. To quote from his essay directly, Faced with a particular change, then, we need rules of thumb. I submit that the two questions we ought to ask are: Does it involve any real loss? and Is there anything we can do about it? [emphasis mine]” Often, the answers to these questions are “no,” and “maybe,” but I am more inclined to worry about when they are “yes,” and “probably not.” There are a few cases in which I believe the grammar rules we practice today make perfect sense, and if they aren’t broken, why fix them? Even if it seems we have always enforced these rules, and some choose to fight against this (as is logical and important to do), at the end of the day, I believe we should keep the most basic of these rules alive because they are vitally important.

Here are a few examples of times I believe misusing grammar indeed causes us to “lose something,” the argument about “correct” (also arbitrary) grammar being adopted and passed down from upper to lower classes aside:

quote9Incorrect Quotation Marks. Nunberg mentions a rise in the incorrect usage of quotation marks, which I agree with, and think needs to be dealt with as seriously as the recent abuse of the letter “i” (iPhone, iCloud, etc.) – just kidding about that part. I’m serious about the quotation marks though, because I think it’s getting out of hand. See 40 Ordinary Signs that Became Suspicious When People Misused Quotations for more examples like these: If you are “pregnant” please inform the technician, day old “bread,” professional “massage.”

Mistakes in punctuation or other grammar that actually change the intended meaning of a sentence, like in these unfortunate examples:

* “Let’s eat, Grandcommama,” versus “Let’s eat Grandma”
* “Try our sausages; none like them,” versus “Try our sausages. None like them.”
* “Slow, Children Crossing,” versus “Slow Children Crossing”
* “Elephants – please stay in your car,” versus “Elephants please stay in your car.”
* “Most of the time, travelers worry about their luggage,” versus “Most of the time travelers worry about their luggage.”

Incorrect subject/verb agreement and other usually-simple-enough-to-follow rules. Perhaps it’s true that grammar rules which make up “Standard American English” are oppressive, and that we should be fighting to change the way we view populations who use variationgeorge-bush-sours of English instead. However – and especially if someone is in a position that lends itself to criticism – judging others for their improper use of English is a pretty natural response. Consider this site, called Grammar Lessons from President George W. Bush, highlighting  some of his most embarrassing face-palm moments. Some of my favorites include, “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test” and “It’s a time of sorrow and sadness when we lose a loss of life.” Sadly, my all-time favorite didn’t make the list: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” Sorry Former President Bush, I couldn’t help myself.

Of course, these are all light-hearted examples of when grammar has taken a hit, but at the same time, it is easy to imagine when misusing grammar or using language opaquely causes real harm. Some of these instances are outlined in George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” and Professor Paku shared an anecdote about a situation with clinical patients that hit home for her. So while it’s useful to wonder about whether an established practice should remain as it is because “we’ve always done it this way,” and even some aspects of Standard English and academic practices don’t always sit right with me, I do believe we should keep in place the most obvious grammar rules such as punctuation use, singular/plural agreement, and subject/verb agreement. We are obviously struggling enough when grammar rules are spelled out for us – the last thing we need is for them to become even muddier, making people look even more foolish or causing even more harm. We can write off other established practices as “stuffy” or in need of revision because tradition doesn’t always trump usefulness or common sense, but correct grammar isn’t one of them.

Language Regulation

“The point of traditional grammar was to demonstrate a way of thinking about grammatical problems that encouraged thoughtful attention to language, not to canonize a set of arbitrary rules and strictures”    -Nunberg

I have never been interested in grammar, and the little experience I’ve had with it has led me to ignore it until recently.  Yet there is something fascinating about the idea of fixed rules on the structure of language, and an awareness of the logic behind such rules will  undoubtedly contribute to clear writing.  I feel that in order to make  grammar interesting, (we, you, I) should explore as many perspectives possible on the subject.  If grammar can be presented in a less rigid context, students may come to consider it as a tool that examines language in order to arrive at clear expression.  Grammar should instill the purpose that, if used properly, it can enhance language to a high degree.
My aim therefore is to take the notion of grammar and integrate it into the study of the English language in a way that gives real value to its usage. In other words, present grammar as a tool within itself to be useful when (one) composes. Rather than a ‘set of arbitrary rules’ it should be seen as a way to visualize words and structure and explore variability of arrangements that constitute clear sentence construction.
Language ‘rules’ should not be the enforcer and crusher of expressional dreams. Mistakes in grammar should not be punishable by law, they should instead instigate interest into the usage of words and structures.   Grammar should focus on the actual feel of sentence construction, so that mistakes are perceived in a manner more useful than a red X.