When I meet someone new and they seem like someone with whom I’d like to talk, I either avoid mentioning my profession, or I simply tell them that I write. This is because I’ve learned that if I tell them I’m an English professor, they tend to get anxious and say things like, “I’d better watch what I say.” (I usually tell them it’s OK, because I’m off the clock, but nonetheless, the damage is done.) They’re afraid I’ll tear them down.
The funny thing about this reaction is that for years, even for centuries, there has been a distrust of what is described as prescriptivism in the discipline, the idea that there are (and should be) inviolable rules of proper grammar. Think of these sticklers as strict constructionists. Their rivals on the field are the descriptivists, who are always epitomized in my mind by a professor I had for a course in modern English grammar (and though I wish we had, we never discussed the tenses in this.) The prof was a linguist, and her position was that any form of English that real people used was “good English,” and that questions of propriety were really matters of a user’s place in the power structure. I asked her once if she’d correct the grammar in a student paper, and she replied that she would prefer simply to inform the student that some aspects of the work would alienate certain audiences, putting the entire business into a rhetorical intersection of pathos (What dialect is preferred by the audience?) and ethos (Do the student’s linguistic decisions put him in the group of rhetors the audience will take seriously?).
Frankly, I find that approach to be a disservice to my students. While dialects do in fact vary, and while the effective rhetor can switch codes for his audience, I think my students will best be served by developing facility in the standard, “mainstream” dialect, which should allow him to reach a wider audience effectively.
I was reminded of all this by a post at The New Criterion. James Bowman observes:
I think this is because the idea of correctness itself, at least as it applies to language, is in bad odor with the dominant liberal consensus. We are ashamed because to them correct language, like correct anything else, smacks of rules, dogmatism and discipline — which are seen as stages on the way to fascism. The idea is absurd, of course.
But we’ve been bickering about this sort of thing for years, since the 18th Century’s efforts to “ascertain” the language. While I don’t believe that’s possible, I also can’t accept the pure relativism of my professor. In fact, I see prescriptivist grammar as a means to empowerment, giving students the tools they need in order to argue and express themselves elegantly and effectively across the broadest possible audience. Knowing one has that ability should in fact promote an earned sense of confidence, which is probably the best cure for the sort of anxiety one might feel when, say, meeting an English professor.