May 4, 2010

The pompousness of prescriptivism

There is no point in following grammatical rules purely for their own sake

I find it amusing when people correct my English. Not because I am so self-assured as a native speaker that my mastery could be beyond question—far from it, actually—but rather because my friends’ corrections are often either insignificant or based on their belief in some sacred “rule” that I have trampled upon. For example: “I meant to put Nussbaum’s new book in my backpack this morning so I could give it to you, but I forgot it at home on accident.”

“By accident,” they reply with a most pompous sigh. I didn’t correct them, of course, because one learns quickly that the sort of person who is driven to constantly correct others’ English is exactly the sort of person who will never be convinced they are doing so unnecessarily.

Why do some among us feel compelled to point out these “errors,” however unimportant they may be? Or even when the error isn’t one at all, such as the prepositional phrase “on accident”; using “they” to refer to a single person; ending sentences with prepositions; splitting infinitives; using the passive voice; and beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions like “and,” “but,” and “or?”

Comrades and friends, leave your false religion. Neither heaven nor good writing will be found by submitting to the indoctrination you received in grade school or by studying Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. If we use language to convey information, then a good test of a practice’s utility is its maintenance of intelligibility. Perfect intelligibility was achieved in the preceding paragraphs, even while I broke each of those so-called rules.

One hypothesis is that my comrade merely wants to inform me that beginning a sentence with “but” is incorrect. The intention to educate usually isn’t malevolent, but I don’t think it’s the right explanation here, because in my experience prescriptivists have little reason why I should follow their usage.

“Why can’t I split an infinitive?” I’ll ask.

“You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not proper English.” Ah, yes. This, I think, is the source of Prescriptivists’ fetishization of all these rules: they see themselves as speakers of something called “proper English,” which I undermine when I split an infinite or use the passive voice. But really, the worst we could accuse them of is being a little arrogant; more chilling is denigration of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, a variety of English spoken mostly in black communities) based on the same proper/improper false dichotomy.

In 2004, Bill Cosby gave a much-discussed speech about the state of the urban black youth population. Notably, he described AAVE as not English and lamented some black youths’ (“knuckleheads”) inability to code-switch between the way they spoke “on the corner” and speaking English in the home. They “don’t want to learn English,” Cosby claimed. I am doubtful. Cosby simply plays into the traditional explanation of AAVE’s existence (a myth, obviously): Blacks are mentally inferior (“knuckleheads”) and too lazy (“don’t want to”) to learn proper English.

Two years later, in Akeelah and the Bee, a black professor-patriarch played by Laurence Fishburne warns the young, gifted Akeelah not to speak “ghetto talk” in his company. The film’s director and screenwriter, Doug Atchison, later won an NAACP Image Award for the film’s writing. Aside from the explicit antagonism to AAVE expressed by Fishburne’s character, we can read the film as Akeelah’s admission to “proper” society by metaphorically mastering its language when she becomes national spelling bee co-champion.

One final example: In their 2010 book Game Change, reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin revealed that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid had said Obama might win the election because he has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to.” Which is to say, America would only elect a black person if she spoke Standard American English (SAE) in addition to AAVE, if she spoke AAVE at all.

This is really how we should think about the relationship between SAE and AAVE: simply two different varieties of English. To speak of one as proper English and the other as improper, illogical, inferior, etc., is simply to unscientifically infect social science with racial prejudice. Worse, research shows that when teachers consistently put down AAVE in the classroom, children become discouraged and their learning of SAE suffers. Instead, we should merely teach SAE at school as a supplement to AAVE, which is learned among one’s peers and family, because that’s all it is: a vernacular learned informally, not an immoral corruption of English.

“Why no pearl-clutching about Appalachian or White Southern English? They are two varieties as different from SAE as AAVE is, and while they are mocked, there exists no effort to stamp out their usage. Our double standard is clear. Let’s dispense with the lurid digs at the state of black youth culture, its supposed rejection of proper English, etc., and address the real problem: Our education system is failing to adequately teach the variety of English spoken in most jobs, academia, and the government, and thus is failing too many black children. Yes, speaking SAE is necessary to access most institutions of American society—but learning SAE does not mean losing AAVE, and any notion of “proper” or “improper” is just an effort to self-aggrandize.

—Andrew Thornton is a third-year in the College majoring in Philosophy.