Grammar is a sticky subject for English teachers. On one hand, speaking and writing “proper” Standard English is an important real-world skill for students to learn. It can help them get into college, get good jobs, and be taken seriously as participants in civic institutions. On the other hand, elevating the importance of grammar rules obscures the way language is constantly changing and the arbitrary nature of “correct” grammar. It can lead young people to dismiss ideas presented in different dialects, like African American Vernacular English.
English professors Kenneth Lindlom and Patricia A. Dunn present a different way teachers can approach the subject. They suggest starting with a “grammar rant.” For example, they describe a 2002 Dear Abby column about the writer’s irritation at double negatives and “improper” words like “irregardless.” Lindlom and Dunn note that heated, emotional writing like this is more interesting to students than dry lists of rules to follow. More importantly, rants offer a clear demonstration of how powerful people make judgments—often harsh ones—based on grammar.
The authors suggest encouraging students to consider a number of questions about the rant. For example:
- What does the author of the grammar rant think is important about language and communication?
- Do the author’s claims about what is right or wrong in language always hold true in any communication situation, or can you think of exceptions? Does the author acknowledge exceptions? What does the presence of exceptions do to the validity of the author’s claim?
- How do the author’s claims about language relate to the socioeconomic class in which speakers and writers have been raised [or their race or cultural and geographical background]? Does the author acknowledge these connections?
Lindlom and Dunn outline a lesson using the Dear Abby column, examining the “errors” that bother her. Some, like double negatives, or the use of “youse” for the plural you, reflect clear class, racial, and regional differences in style. Others, like using “myself” instead of “me” or pronouncing “forte” as “for-tay,” are attempts to sound more formal or correct. A discussion with students could reveal nuances of language use. For example, George W. Bush’s “mispronunciation” of “nuclear” may have helped him create a folksy image despite his elite background.
In another example, Lindblom and Dunn suggest having students read a rant by Bill O’Reilly that includes a judgment about grammar: “If a working-class or poor child rejects education, does not learn to speak properly, does not respect just authority and does not understand that having babies at age 14 is a ticket to ruin, then that child’s life will likely be tragic.”
The authors suggest having students consider what O’Reilly means by “speak properly,” how that relates to his other complaints, and how a particular speaking style could lead to tragedy.
Lindblom and Dunn write that grammar rants have been useful tools in their own classrooms in helping to students to understand both why “proper” English is an arbitrary idea and why it’s so important.