Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

Killing Grammar: Part III of a Three-Part Series

(AndreyPopov/Getty Images)

In the previous two columns, we’ve seen what the standards were in the 1970s for teaching English grammar and usage in the lower and mid-level grades. The author of those guidelines, Robert C. Pooley, wrote under the auspices of the National Council of Teachers of English. That was the last time any national guidelines were issued for what children ought to know about Standard English.

The standards were different for different grade levels. High schools were to continue the “skills and attitudes properly begun in kindergarten” and developed through middle school. Pooley insisted that language development should not be looked upon as purely corrective: Language instruction, in his view, “must be focused upon the constant expansion of powers to use language effectively for the needs of school and adult life.” That’s wise.

But one fears that the past 46 years haven’t seen an upsurge in the elements Pooley suggested for high-school students: (1) guided practice in oral language by means of reports, discussions, panels, forums, and debates; and (2) composition exercises at regular and frequent intervals. Some schools achieve these goals better than others do. Accomplishing them satisfactorily requires a great deal of instructor time and effort.

Pooley’s 1974 recommendations were adapted from an essay he’d written in the 1960s under the title “Dare Schools Set a Standard in English Usage?” It was considered a daring proposition even half a century ago. He set forth more than 20 elements of Standard English that high-schoolers should learn.

1. The proper use of pronouns (for example, I and we as subjects and me and us as objects).

2. Similar proper use of pronouns in compound constructions (Mary and I as subject and Mary and me as object).

3. The grammatical use of is, are, was, and were with respect to number and tense.

4. Correct use of irregular verbs in the past tense (saw, gave, took, brought, bought, stuck, etc.).

5. Correct use of past participles (seen, given, taken, drunk, sunk, etc.).

6. Avoidance of double negatives (*We don’t have no apples, etc.).

7. Avoidance of *ain’t, hisn, hern, ourn, theirselves, etc.

8. Correct use of possessive pronouns (my, mine, his, hers, theirs, ours).

9. Mastery of its (possessive) and it’s (contraction).

10. Avoidance of them as a demonstrative pronoun (*them books).

11. Avoidance of *this here and *that there.

12. Mastery of a and an (including a historical fact, not *an historical fact, in American English, as well as an SEC report and a UNESCO project).

13. The proper use of we before an appositional noun as subject and us as object (for example, We the people must decide and It’s for us the people to decide).

14. Correct use of there is and there are according to the number in the complement (avoiding *there’s many things to consider).

15. Avoidance of *she don’t, he don’t, it don’t.

16. Avoidance of learn for teach and leave for let.

17. Avoidance of so-called pleonastic subjects (for example, my brother he, that woman she).

18. Proper use of neither of them is, if either of them wants, and each of them is (not are, want, and are).

19. The distinction between good and well (I’m feeling good and I played well).

20. Avoidance of *can’t hardly and *can’t scarcely.

21. Avoidance of at after where (as in *Where is it at?).

In 1974 (it bears repeating), Pooley recommended against teaching any distinction between shall and will, any reference to the split infinitive, and any objection to like as a conjunction (Winston tastes good like a cigarette should). More disappointing to the stickler today, perhaps, is that Pooley said there was no reason to object to different than in place of different from; the reason is because in place of the reason is that; myself in place of I or me; and *one of those girls who is in place of one of those girls who are.

Fortunately, Pooley objected to the idea that a native speaker of English couldn’t make a mistake: “The uncritical acceptance of the argument that a child must never be interrupted to make a speech correction, for fear of destroying his train of thought or confidence in himself, has resulted in a hesitancy to inform the student of his usage.”

Pooley wasn’t shy about assigning blame for the shortfalls in English skills: “Much of the carelessness and inaccuracy of high-school written work is attributable to the relaxation of standards not only in non-English classrooms, but even in the English classrooms themselves.”

In 1974 there was no great aversion to drilling. Pooley recommended making 5×8 filing cards of the usage items with which a particular student had difficulty. Today, the equivalent would be a series of computer exercises on English usage. In an era of computer gamers, this type of exercise could be made more interesting than ever. But you can be assured that during the coronavirus seclusions, most cooped-up children involved in online learning haven’t been undergoing that sort of instruction.

If teaching Standard English was a stretch in 1974, today it might seem hopeless. If a means could be found, it would go a long way to eliminating some of the fault lines within American society. It’s worth reminding ourselves that Standard English isn’t just about preserving an old linguistic status quo. It’s about preserving a continuity with our linguistic past. Language will change, yes, but Standard English changes very slowly indeed. And it is democratic in a high sense: It’s available to everyone who desires to attain it.

For many, it does indeed make them no never mind.

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Bryan A. Garner — Mr. Garner is the author of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, Garner’s Modern English Usage, and The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

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