Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

[W]e should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness.

“Analysis of Cliches and Abstractions,” Lou LaBrant (1949)

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

Henry David Thoreau

Let us start with two writers from the monuments of “great authors”—Chaucer and Shakespeare (like Prince and Madonna, from the land of one-name people). Both Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote with double negatives and double comparatives/superlatives. In their eras, these constructions were emphatic, not breaking some rule of grammar.

Now for context: On the Teaching and Learning Forum of the NCTE Connected Community a battle has been waged (one rivaling Beowulf versus Grendel) over the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

That’s right, while a presidential election is brewing, we teachers of English are hotly debating pronoun/antecedent agreement.

So it is here, as a 30+-year English teacher and teacher of future and current English teachers, I would like to make a stand for descriptive grammar as a compromise for the unrelenting grammar war.

How, I can feel you asking, can taking a side be a compromise? Let me try to explain.

My journey to how I teach grammar, mechanics, and usage has been profoundly informed by the history of the English language and linguists—both of which strongly support a descriptive view of language that recognizes and embraces change.

As well, I am a writer, one who uses the language in the service of my craft, and thus, one who does not work within rules, but through an awareness of conventional usage.

Two key points are worth examining more fully—conventions and awareness.

Language does not function under rules (fixed and prescriptive) but under conventions that are both situational and temporal. Again, read Chaucer or Shakespeare with a keen eye on their usages that became “incorrect,” or peruse Nathaniel Hawthorn’s writing for Olympic gold medal amounts of commas, many of which in our contemporary time would not be used with absolutely no loss of meaning.

Language conventionality, in fact, is a much healthier view of language usage than rules since those conventions are organic, growing out of actual language usage that gravitates toward effective (and even efficient) communication of ideas.

“Why are these homies dissin my girl? Why do they gotta front?” from Weezer reflects the tendency of language to clip—”dissin” for “disrespecting” and “front” for “putting on a front.” Again, Rivers Cuomo and Weezer are representing the exact manipulations of language found in Shakespeare, who is nearly the pinnacle of “authors we worship.”

Next, the key to my argument that a descriptive view of language is a compromise in the grammar war is teaching convention awareness instead of rules acquisition (see Johns for a parallel examination of genre awareness versus genre acquisition).

Taught with a descriptive approach to language (for example, noting that many if not most people use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun), convention awareness addresses both that conventions exist, and often with status marking consequences (see Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context), and that some conventions are in flux (I was taught a rigid distinction between “shall” and “will,” one now defunct with dearly departed “shall,” and contemporary students remain confronted with a similar rigid view of “who” and “whom,” whilst poor “whom” is barely breathing and Hospice surely is on the ready).

In other words, the descriptive view of language acknowledges the prescriptive view, and ultimately renders the student an agent in their use of the language (see what I did there?). However, the prescriptive rules-based approach to language necessarily ignores or marginalizes the much more historically and linguistically sound descriptive view.

I teach my students that pronoun/antecedent agreement remains a status marking usage convention for many in the academic world—highlighting that while common usage of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is increasing, many in academia or formal publishing remain committed to “they” as always plural, noting, however, that many in academia also strongly conform to gender-neutral and gender-sensitive usages of language.

Ultimately, I want my students to recognize that conventions (and especially viewing language through rules) is about power—who decides what for whom (a few short breaths and chest compressions).

For our students to be aware, then, of both descriptive and prescriptive views of language, for those students to gain a recognition that language use is about purpose and choice, bound by situation and audience, is for them to become agents in how their own credibility and authority is viewed.

As a final plea from someone who teaches first-year writing to college students, I want to note that students who have been taught a rules-based view of language are often disillusioned as soon as they see how often professional writers are not conforming to those rules. Like fragments. Those students tend to struggle with gaining their own voices and their own autonomy over language.

In other words, a rules-based view of language tends to erode a student’s appreciation of the beauty and power of language—while teaching convention awareness fosters in students both the moves for and enjoyment in investigating language usage.

Encouraging students to enthusiastically wrestle with language is a goal of our English classes worth fighting for (wink-wink, nod-nod).

So this is my modest proposal, one dedicated to a full and complex appreciation of language usage.

It is also a plea for a much healthier approach to language that understands “they” most certainly will be a gender-neutral singular pronoun soon, just as “whom” is about to join “shall” in the great archaic constructions in the sky.

All that is sure to remain is the language itself, and it is ours to treat it and our students with the kindness and dignity they deserve.

See Also

From Ken Lindblom on the Teaching and Learning Forum:

For more, please see our book, Grammar Rants (includes the introduction for free) or our freely-available English Journal article, “Analyzing Grammar Rants: An Alternative to Traditional Grammar Instruction.” 

Another great resource is Edgar Schuster’s Breaking the Rules.

Students: Do Experts Follow the Rules You’re Taught?, Judith Landrum

Steven Pinker: ‘Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions’

Singular “they” and the many reasons why it’s correct

Here Is Why We Need Transgender Pronouns

The Washington Post will allow singular ‘they’

The Singular “They” — When Pronouns Get Personal

It’s time for gender-free pronouns, Katharine Whitehorn


11 thoughts on “Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language”

  1. This is a great post! The students in my college freshman writing course read a series of pieces on the theme of language/power/politics so that they begin to recognize how language can serve a discriminatory function.

  2. Thank you! I worry that an overly academic approach to writing, especially for emergent bilingual students, will stifle creative voices. Yes, certain rules and structures can be taught, but taught so that conventions can be waived when needed.

  3. The rule about the split infinitive has burdened me for years, but I now feel that if one can put the adverb “quickly” in various places in a simple sentence ” — he — ran — to the store” and get three shades of meaning, then it is sensible and meaningful to put it before, between or after in the infinitive.
    Just a thought, inspired by “To boldly go…”.

  4. I second that approach; I teach that approach. Of course we should teach our students the “rules”, and of course they should know when, why, and how to ignore them.

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