‘Good English’ : Why Must It Be So Gray?

I led my first official handful of face-to-face appointments this past week and was surprised at how many of my peers were concerned with grammar usage in their writing. I was expecting to provide feedback on thesis statements, supporting evidence, or essay structure, but instead I was explaining subject-verb agreement, the past-perfect tense, and every writer’s worst nightmare: verbals.

It is only appropriate that this past week’s discussion in UCWbL Program Director Liz Coughlin’s Writing Center Theory and Pedagogy class focused on definitions of grammar and different approaches to teaching it as a peer.

Grammar seems to be an intimidating subject for writers of all skill-levels and backgrounds. Students learning English as a second language are usually very concerned about their use of grammar, as are those who have been speaking and writing the language since they were young.

In my recent face-to-face tutorials, I was asked numerous questions by nervous writers:

“Does this sentence make sense?”

“Is my grammar good?”

“Is my English good?”

“Do I sound like an American?”

All of these concerns seem to be different variations of the same basic question:

“Does my writing adhere to the rules of English grammar?”

Questions give birth to new questions, and this one is no exception, because it stems from an even larger debate:

“What is grammar and why does it exist?”

In her essay “On Not Writing English,” Puerto Rican Jewish writer Aurora Levins Morales addresses this question in regard to the many different groups of people using the language today.

“Good English, as I understand it, is a set of agreements about which words make sense, what they mean and in what order they need to be used in order to keep making sense,” she explains.

The ultimate goal of this effort is “to make sure that we understand each other,” but as Morales reminds us, the rules of English grammar are never drafted with the majority of English speakers and writers in mind.

We can think of grammar rules as linguistic laws composed by a secluded scholar who writes them down and flings them from the window of his study to the masses living in squalor below him. The scholar knows exactly how his rules are meant to be used, but because he lacks any connection to the multitude of English speakers who will learn the rules, has no way of controlling how they will be applied outside the confines of his sanctuary.

This far-fetched scenario is simply the first image that came to my mind when thinking about Morales’ discussion of “legislators of language.” Those responsible for our understanding of what is ‘good’ or ‘correct’ English are “almost exclusively male, white and wealthy, unlike the majority of English speakers,” Morales argues. Language elites “set things up according to their own very specific needs and then declare those needs universal.”

This is not to say that we should ignore all rules of grammar in favor of some rebel form of English slang. However it is important for us to know where the rules of our language come from, which ones are hard and fast, and which ones can be bent, even broken.

In an article on the same subject, “The Phenomenology of Error,” former University of Chicago professor Joseph M. Williams encourages us as learners and users of English to “shift our attention from error treated strictly as an isolated item on a page, to error perceived as a flawed verbal transaction between a writer and a reader.”

Grammar is full of gray areas. The difference between using “saw” and “was seeing” in a sentence is simply a matter of what aspect the writer wants to emphasize about the action. Adherence to grammar rules also depends a great deal on whether a writer wants to sound formal or informal. There are so many factors that determine how strictly one should obey the laws of the language legislators.

Therefore, if a writer breaks a grammatical rule, it is important to consider the context in which that rule was broken and how that ‘error’ will affect the reader’s understanding of the work. When teaching the application of rules of grammar, the question should not be a matter of black or white, ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but a discussion of how different approaches to language construction influence the reader’s comprehension of a given idea.