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To Strongly Be Against Grammatical Correctness

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, by Jack Lynch looks to be something well worth getting for those interested in the jujitsu that is writing in the English language. Salon has a decent review of the book:

“Correct” English, as Lynch characterizes it, is basically “the English wealthy and powerful people spoke a generation or two ago.” And sure enough, the first guides to English usage promised to teach people to write and speak with greater “elegance” and “politeness,” not greater correctness. These manuals, born of an age of increased social mobility, were intended for “a newly self-conscious group of people who were no longer peasants but still were excluded from the traditional aristocracy.” The suddenly rich children of merchants and manufacturers needed instructions on the elegant grammar (and manners) of the aristocracy in order to blend in with their social superiors. Tellingly, the 300-year history of fulmination against improper usage is marked by diatribes against those “inferior” and upstart groups supposedly most prone to transgression: women, young people, racial and ethnic minorities and, of course, Americans.

To protests that the language police are only protecting the accuracy, precision and clarity of our tongue, Lynch lifts a skeptical eyebrow. Many of the most roundly deplored “debasements” of English are nevertheless perfectly comprehensible: I didn’t confuse you by writing “Ain’t it the truth?” in my opening paragraph, did I? The only truly unbreakable rules of grammar and usage are the ones that, when broken, result in a genuine failure to communicate. The rest is a form of covert class warfare, and today’s usage reproofs constitute a status-protecting thump on the head delivered by the upper middle class to uppity members of the lower middle.

Thinking of the grammar wars in this light helps explain why they provoke such rage. Much as some people might detest seeing the noun “impact” used as a verb, if a lot of people say it and almost everybody understands it when it’s said, then a coup has been effected. The “verbing” of nouns (or the creation of “nerbs”) has been a flashpoint for the past four or five decades with the growth of business management lingo. Complaints about this point to a particularly American social fissure: between the cultured sensibility of the liberally educated and the can-do utilitarianism of striving MBAs.

Some sort of comment about the evangelical rage that roils over whenever someone suggests that “man” is maybe not the best word to describe men and women seems appropriate here.


  1. As with much of hermeneutic divisions, It seems to me that the key lines of division within grammar instruction (meaning syntax, word choice, usage, punctuation, and even spelling—a catch-all term that most English language-arts teachers use to describe the “stuff” that we “have to , but don’t want to” teach) have been drawn between those who favor part to whole and whole to part instruction. As a brief aside… isn’t this much akin to the graphophonic (phonics-based) and whole language reading debate? Anyway, here is my take on the assumptions of both positions:

    Advocates of part to whole instruction believe that front-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

    1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction.
    2. Identification of grammatical constructions leads to application.
    3. Familiarity with the rules of grammar leads to correct application.
    4. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application.
    5. Distrust of one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter .

    Advocates of whole to part instruction believe that back-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language, as is determined by needs of the writing task, will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

    1. Minimal memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and minimal practice in identification of grammatical constructions.
    2. Connection to one’s oral language is essential to inform fluent and effective writing.
    3. Reading and listening to exemplary literature and poetry provides the models that students need to mimic and revise as they develop their own writing style.
    4. Minimal error analysis.
    5. Teaching writing as a process with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

    Of course, how teachers align themselves within the Great Grammar Debate (See is not necessarily an “either-or” decision. Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. I take a stab on how to integrate the inductive and deductive approaches in How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction (See

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  2. Thom wrote:

    I had the privilege of having two classes with Dr. Lynch at Rutgers in my MA English program. He is insightful and quite the comedian.

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009 at 9:14 am | Permalink

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