Luke William Mills

Luke Mills

“You teach English? I’d better be careful how I talk around you!” As someone who teaches English language and literature, I hear this a lot. It’s discomfiting and not particularly flattering to think of myself as a vigilante school marm, ruler in hand, ready to bust up grammatical offenses like casks of Prohibition whiskey. Such a response is meant mostly in jest, of course, and not limited to my profession. I’m sure lawyers hear much worse.

But the truth is that teachers of English language and literature do provide grammar instruction and that students endure it much as they would a visit to the dentist, waiting for it to end and then putting it out of mind as quickly as possible. “Grammar” not only pains but flummoxes many, if not most. Why?

Much of this has to do with the kind of grammar being taught. Believe it or not, the rules of grammar as you learned them in school are not like scientific laws, and neither were they written by God on the back of the Ten Commandments.

They flourished, rather, in the eighteenth century and were largely influenced by grammars of the classical languages, Latin particularly, and ideas about logic. Thus, from Latin we have rules about not splitting the infinitive (‘to’ + an uninflected verb, as in ‘to go.’ To “split the infinitive” means to put a word between ‘to’ and the verb, as Captain Picard does in Star Trek: The Next Generation when he declares his intention ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’) or ending a sentence with a preposition.

And from logic, we inherit the rule about not using double negatives, because two negatives cancel each other out and make a positive. If we take a moment to reflect on rules like these, their inaptness, and perhaps silliness, becomes clear. The infinitive in Latin wasn’t split because it couldn’t be. The Latin infinitive — amare, ‘to love,’ for example — was one word. And just because Latin writers didn’t end their sentences with prepositions, why shouldn’t we?

Latin is a different, highly-inflected language, after which English could never be perfectly modeled. And contrary to the thinking of many eighteenth-century grammarians, Latin is not a better language, more closely descended from a “divine” grammar. As for double negatives, ask yourself how often you’ve been confused by one. When you hear someone say he “ain’t got no money,” do you assume he’s wealthy? This kind of grammar, the kind you’re taught in school, is called prescriptive grammar by linguists because it prescribes a certain use of language.

As a matter of fact, you’re an expert in English grammar (or in the grammar of your native language). You just don’t know it. Language necessarily works by rules; otherwise, communication would be impossible. If I say, “The John stairs down went,” you perceive immediately that I’ve made some kind of mistake, that I’ve broken a rule of English language. You could probably also put those words in the right order: “John went down the stairs.” How did you do that? What rule or rules guided you? You couldn’t say. You just know — in much the same way that you know how to walk without knowing how to explain the mechanics of walking. For most of us, linguistic ability, like walking, is inborn, or innate.

The prescriptive grammar we’re taught in school often befuddles us because it’s constructed, non-natural, and sometimes contrary to our native grammar. This does not mean, however, that it’s completely useless. Rather, it means that the rules of prescriptive grammar are human, not divine, and therefore imperfect and subject to change. Good language still exists and some prescriptive rules foster it. What we have to be on guard against is investing too much authority in these rules and using them as a cudgel on others, especially in speech, because formal academic writing is very different from conversation. To confuse the two would be like attending a wedding in your bathing suit or wearing your tuxedo on the beach.

So if we ever meet, don’t worry. I won’t be fretting over your grammar, and I hope you won’t be bothered by mine.

Luke William Mills is associate professor of English at Wingate University.