Should we really be teaching our kids all these grammar rules?

Shakespeare editIn schools around the world, children are spending thousands of hours in the classroom, learning rules to govern how they use their native language. In the US, we’d call that English class; mine was Grammar and Composition. In Japan, it’s called 国語 (こくご/kokugo). Kids in Japan also spend a lot of that time just learning the 2,000 or so characters they need to be able to read, but it’s basically the same idea. In linguistics, these rules for using a language are called prescriptive rules, and linguists don’t tend to have a terribly positive view of them. If kids naturally learn and speak their native language, should we really spend all this time and effort teaching kids these rules?

First, some general background on childhood development of language. Humans have an innate capacity for language, far beyond what any other species displays. In many ways, it is the defining feature of our species. As anyone who has been around young children can tell you, you almost can’t stop kids from talking and trying out their language. Kids naturally pick up the language they hear all around them and build their own single-person language, or idiolect, from the available inputs. Usually this idiolect is extremely close to their parents’ language, but it is even closer to that of their peers.

If you’re a native English speaker, I’m sure you’ve experienced generation gaps in talking with someone from your parents’ generation, or with someone much younger than you. I distinctly recall a huge furor among pink-faced, respectable, necktie-wearing adults in the early 90s over the use of the word “like”. The death of the English language! These kids can’t communicate their basic thoughts! Well, no. “Like” actually fulfills a very handy role in a sentence, and can signal semantically distinct meanings that are much more cumbersome without it. Take a look at this sentence:

So, I was like, “Get out of here, Brezhnev, you’re drunk, and you’re embarrassing yourself.”

Here, “like” is functioning as a quoting particle. What’s interesting to me is the semantic difference that most American English speakers around my age (and I presume younger) would note here. Probably the speaker did not actually say, “Get out of here, Brezhnev, you’re drunk, and you’re embarrassing yourself.” The speaker is paraphrasing himself. If the speaker had used “said”, I would expect a more or less accurate report of what was said, but “like” gives a measure of leeway and allows for little flights of fancy. The speaker using “like” can imagine that they were much more eloquent in the past, and the listener will forgive them this embellishment. The structure “he was all”, works similarly.

The prime minister addressed the cabinet, and he was all, “I’ve got bronchitis, ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Now, here’s the real question: where did I learn this? If you’re part of the peer group that uses like in this way, where did you learn it? I bet you didn’t learn it from your parents, or at school, or in a textbook. Probably you developed this grammar structure over the course of the 80s and 90s, along with the rest of us. A follow up question: is this quotation particle less communicative than the “correct” English you learned in school? Is it worse at relaying your thoughts?

Prescriptive rules constrain natural language. That’s not a value judgment, it’s just what they do. Natural language changes fairly rapidly, while we hang on to prescriptive rules like the who/whom distinction long after they’ve left our spoken language. Is that really desirable? Is it valuable enough for our society that we should instruct every child in these rules?

The sort of language we get from following the prescriptive rules is what we call prestige language. It’s the language of the professor and the politician. We place a lot of value on the words and ideas of people who can master the prestige language. Those of us who can use the prestige language tend to look down our noses at people who typ lik dis an dont use punkchuashun—But is that fair? Certainly the content of a person’s ideas should matter more than the form they come in. Why should we spend countless hours and pages upon pages of worksheets teaching this prestige language, just to suit our prejudices?

We use these prescriptive rules as a sort of shorthand to determining the intelligence of the speaker or writer. Although intelligent ideas can be expressed in any human language, it does require a certain capacity with abstract thought to master prescriptive rules of grammar and usage. In a sense, adherence to the rules of prestige English is a shibboleth, something designed to determine whether a person is a member of the in-group or not:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
—Judges 12:5–6, NJB
We use all these arcane little rules, like never splitting an infinitive or not ending a sentence with a preposition, in order to signal that we are members of the educated class. We teach them to our children in the hopes that they can pass for members of that educated class. And once we know them, we watch for them in the writing and speech of others to determine whether they are members of the educated class. People tend to trust those whose language and behaviors mirror their own, and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon.

Perhaps this is easier than judging others by the content of their ideas. I can find subject/verb disagreement in a sentence much faster than I can identify a logical fallacy or an argument that doesn’t follow from its premises. And when I have kids, I hope they’ll be able to use the prestige language fluently, because I know they’ll most likely gain more traction and influence with people who have also mastered prescriptive rules. But I think we’d all be well served to set aside our prejudices from time to time and examine the content of ideas that may come to us in a form we associate with less-educated people.



English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Language and Society
One comment on “Should we really be teaching our kids all these grammar rules?
  1. Tom says:

    Living in eastern Washington means that I can never get too picky about the way people speak, I’m just happy when they don’t put on that weird fake southern accent. Another excellent piece.

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