This semester I will be teaching a freshman seminar in English. It is designed to help new students adapt to life in college and learn the basics of succeeding at this new stage of their lives. I plan to spend a lot of time teaching students to write well in English. I often get criticized for being such a stickler for the correct usage of language.
“What you don’t understand is that language is all about experimentation. You have to allow students to be creative with it,” people often tell me. I have heard hints that I care so much about good grammar and rich vocabulary because I am an immigrant and English is not my first language. This supposedly makes true linguistic creativity of a native speaker incomprehensible to me. It has even been hinted that I’m a racist if I don’t think that double and triple negatives are appropriate in an academic paper. As if we would do any favors to our students by preventing them from developing a correct and beautiful writing style.
I passionately believe in the importance of being creative with one’s language. However, you can only proceed to work on your own unique style of writing after you have mastered the rules of correct usage. Starting each sentence with an “actually” or a “basically” is not creativity. It is nothing but intellectual laziness. And “I would have did” is simply wrong. If it makes me a hopeless old frump to insist that nouns and verbs should agree in number, then so be it. If I have learned not to write “he say” in a language that is not my own, it is not too much to expect from my monolingual students.