Prescriptions for Anxiety

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.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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2 Responses to Prescriptions for Anxiety

  1. Tim Kowal says:

    I tend to agree. Language is a useful art. To be useful, there must be at least a presumption of rules and objectivity. To be artful, we must allow some degree of play in the joints. Like other art forms, rules too rigidly adhered to can constrain the creativity, and even the usefulness, of the medium. Yet, rules can also enhance the interest and beauty of the product. Breaking a “rule” allows an author to draw special attention to a concept, for example.

    Besides, if one assumes that his fellows do not share a common set of rules about language, or anything else, for that matter, this suggests there is probably little import in the communication to begin with. A bleak prospect. Better to assume we recognize some sort of natural law about language; it makes for a stronger basis on which a meaningful interaction might be had.

  2. The Ancient says:

    I have a very old friend, who grew up — sadly — in the middle of Illinois.

    His sophomore English teacher’s claim to fame was that she had once been Vachel Lindsay’s lover. (They had also ridden horses together naked, which sounds immensely uncomfortable.)

    Anyway, fifty years ago, whenever he was obliged to pass by her classroom door, he regularly fell down on the linoleum floor and “gatored” his way past. She obligingly feigned her horseback ecstasy.

    (Of course, she was then pushing eighty.)

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