Where kings are born

Language should not be taught as an absolute, a matter of clear right and wrong.  The history of language is the history of change; the rules evolve.

— Donald Murray, The Craft of Revision, 3rd Edition

Why does grammar feel like a moral issue?  I never got in much trouble as a kid except when I used the wrong pronoun case, confused a verb’s simple past with its past participle, or got sloppy with subject-verb agreement.  My parents would interrupt my narratives and ask me to repeat my sentence correctly.  It felt like I had done something wrong.

It got worse when I made a grammatical mistake while at home from college.  My father would conclude his correction with, “And an English major!”  (They still correct my mistakes, though I now encourage it.  My father, predictably, now concludes with, “An English teacher!”)

Dave at Via Negativa sent me a link today to a short New York Times online symposium in honor of The Elements of Style’s fiftieth anniversary.  The writers were generally pretty tough on old Strunk and his frequently undue certitude about grammatical and stylistic matters.  A part of me enjoyed it: besides my parents, no one is more responsible for my own case of grammar guilt than Professor Strunk.

At some point in my twenties, I rebelled against my fundamentalist grammatical upbringing and found myself in the camp of the moral relativists, such as Merriam-Webster’s editorial staff.  Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives the historical basis for most of the grammatical and usage rules I learned in grade school.  I laughed out loud as rules such as “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction” and “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” turned out to be accidents of history or – worse (well, better, from my point of view) – frauds perpetrated by publishers anxious to sell grammar hornbooks to nineteenth century American schools.

Still, the moral component persists in me.  I guess it’s my hard-wired Calvinist-Strunkist upbringing.  I still like to read a sourpuss like William Zinsser (On Writing Well, itself recently released in a thirtieth anniversary edition) just in case I’ve really backslidden.  After reading that Times symposium this evening, I reread Strunk and White for the first time in five years.  I’m happy to report that, unlike the last time I read the little book, I’ll have very little to unburden myself of in confession tomorrow.

Perusing the current edition of The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing recently, I came across a digest of Dennis Baron’s Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language.  The digest suggests that the moral undertone to my grammar instruction was the result of a failed effort by early American patriots to differentiate American English from British English:

Although no uniform “Federal grammar” emerged, the link between correct grammar and patriotism led to the association of correctness with good morals in general, and hence with social prestige.  The link between grammar and morality also fostered intense anxiety about correctness that continues to this day.

Baron also blames American grammar textbooks, which took matters into their own hands when no federal standard emerged in the early nineteenth century.  (We Americans do grammar like we do religion: no central authority, just lots of voices with varying levels of credibility and numbers of adherents at every street corner.)

In Crafting Authentic Voice, Tom Romano digests another fascinating book I’ve never read.  Winston Weathers demonstrates in An Alternate Style: Options in Composition how American and English canonical writers have broken to great effect many of the grammatical rules I teach.  Here’s how Romano uses Weathers’s material in his college freshman comp class:

I formally introduce students to ways in which they can break the rules in style.  They read two chapters I’ve written about what Weathers has called Grammar B, the alternative to Grammar A, which is the standard, traditional, conservative form of written English . . . . I demonstrate how professional writers and past students have effectively used sentence fragments, lists, double voice, labyrinthine sentences, and orthographic variation (respelling of words).  These unconventional language moves leave the norm of Grammar A.  They break the rules.  It isn’t anything students haven’t seen before.

Romano says his students are ready for it.  Here’s one of my favorite comments from one of his former students, Nathan Stevens:

Well, I don’t write to specifically break the rules, but being able to break the rules is that little something extra that keeps me going.  It makes it fun and exciting.  It makes it original.  Sure, all writing is original, but breaking the rules inside of already original writing is where kings are born.

One might argue theologically that morality – and, indeed, all of the spiritual disciplines – exist in part as schoolmasters (to borrow St. Paul’s expression concerning the law’s relationship to us) to prepare us for our real callings – what the Bible refers to as kings and priests before God (Exodus 19:6, 1 Peter 2:9, and Revelation 1:6, 5:10, and 20:6), among other things.  But is the church on your street corner ready to risk the possible moral relativism the King of Kings may be inadvertently unleashing in such passages?  Not likely.

It’s not likely that most schools will be teaching Grammar B anytime soon, either.  Meantime, like E.B. White before me, I’ll acknowledge the schoolmasters who, for better or worse, taught me grammatical rules as if they had come down on stone from Mount Sinai.  I use grammar better than most of my contemporaries – a skill I value in part for the crown it may bring me one day – and I credit the likes of William Strunk for that.