Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Attack of the grammar nazis

In an interesting profile of the linguist Geoff Pullum, the Daily Telegraph's Tom Chivers takes a look at the arguments that still rage around the 'rules' of English. For any of you working on ENGA3 Language Discourses, it's a good read, particularly from about halfway through where Pullum outlines his views on the role of linguists in studying how people in the real world use language and how this contrasts with those prescriptive grammarians who pronounce from on high with little grasp of what language actually does.

Whenever linguists point out that the rules of language can’t be what the “grammar Nazis” think they are, people claim that they’re saying anything goes. Not at all, says Pullum. “We grammarians who study the English language are not all bow-tie-wearing martinets, but we’re also not flaming liberals who think everything should be allowed. There’s a sensible middle ground where you decide what the rules of Standard English are, on the basis of close study of the way that native speakers use the language.” 

And in a later section of the article he illustrates just how he is not a "flaming liberal" by making a strong case for teaching Standard English:

However, there are good reasons to teach the rules of Standard English to children who speak different dialects. “I’m conservative on educational matters,” says Pullum. “It’s entirely to the benefit of all of us that newspapers’ editorials are written in Standard English, and that we can all speak it in situations such as business and air traffic control, and understand each other.” Because this particular form of English, and not northern British English or African American Vernacular English, is the language of prestige and power in much of the world, children who can master it are likely to do better in life than children who can’t. 
It's worth having a think about where Pullum's arguments fit into what we've looked at in the Language Discourses part of the course and how his points about the value of teaching Standard English contrast with those of Lindsay Johns and Michael Rosen, two writers whose work we've looked at in class.

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