What Kind of English?

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.

21 thoughts on “What Kind of English?”

  1. As someone who took a “composition” course my first year, I agree with you, and sincerely wish more teachers pounded proper grammar into our heads. If it’s not laid out as a foundation in our first-year English courses, we’ll suffer academically later when the time comes to write real papers in upper-level courses.


  2. Technically.

    That is my crux when I have to talk to someone on the phone in english. I use it over and over and over again. Especially when it is actually about something technical šŸ™‚


  3. Sounds like you talk to a lot of descriptive grammarians. šŸ˜›

    They’re wrong. You use proper, proscriptive grammar for academic writing. If they want to get creative, they can take creative writing classes. (But their grammar, spelling, and style will be critiqued there, too.)

    I’m curious: how many English classes are required for GenEd? At WKU, students had to take three. I’m of the opinion that anything less is a disservice, but I’ve heard of universities that only require one.


    1. Prescriptive, not proscriptive, is the word you are looking for. Descriptive linguists (in other words, all linguists) do not assert that academic writing should not observe the conventions of academic writing. That’s just a canard.


        1. Prescriptive grammarians state grammar rules that one must follow to be using “correct” English (or Arabic, or French, or whatever). Descriptive grammarians describe the rules that users of a language actually follow when using the language. As Jonathan says, this is not equivalent to “anything goes.” Part of the description is the context, and academic writing is a particular context. To use double negatives in an academic context, one would need to overturn the conventions of this context or wait a few hundred years in the hope that double negatives will again become “proper” English. At the same time, other contexts require the use of double negatives and other “errors” and it is indeed possible to use them incorrectly, as is common among fiction writers who write dialogue in dialects they are not fluent in.

          There are of course other issues involved as well, such as the fact that English has many written standards, that users have varying access to different varieties of a language, and that some prescriptivists assign moral judgements to the users of “improper” language or state that certain rules are inherently “better” when they are really just accepted conventions in a particular social context. However, I’m guessing that Clarissa is aware of these issues and this is not what she is talking about/planning to do.


  4. There certainly is a difference between misusing grammar in creative writing (fiction) and in technical or academic work. When I read fiction, I expect errors – many people don’t speak proper English, and that ought to be reflected in the characters of a novel. That is not so in an informational context – technical papers, instruction manuals, essays, opinion pieces and the like. The point may be creative, but the language ought to be clear.


    1. But even in fiction, as C. points out, you can’t break the rules to reflect the inabilities of the characters until you KNOW what those rules and conventions are.

      I applaud this. The ability not just to speak and write with “correct” grammar and expansive vocabulary but also to know when and where it’s okay to relax and shift into a more casual mode is something CRUCIAL to success out in the real world.

      (though I cringed at your very on-target “basically” and “actually” shot…everything I write winds up needing serious qualifier removal and adverbectomy work…)


  5. It’s better that they get the rude shock that they need to relearn grammar and syntax rules for formal English then to get it after they walk at graduation.
    On a related note, it drives me up the wall when I see men who claim to have Ph.Ds and Master’s degrees who can’t be bothered to spell-check their dating profiles.


  6. I’m a native speaker of English, and bad grammar annoys me just as much as it annoys you.

    I nearly tear my hair out when I see fellow native speakers who don’t use “lay”, “laid” and “lie” correctly. Even people with otherwise perfect grammar can’t seem to get these right.


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