By Kristin Baresich
Anne Curzan’s piece “Says Who?” was an enormously refreshing look at Standard English and the forces that control its growth and change. Even if we enjoy reading books or thinking about them in essays written for literature classes, grammar is often the aspect of English courses that no amount of dressing up or camouflaging can make interesting. Furthermore, not only is teaching grammar often painfully dull, it sometimes bears little resemblance to the conversational, “normal” English we speak on a daily basis, leading to frustration among students that are required to implement these formalized, seemingly archaic grammatical principles into their written academic work. Curzan acknowledges this and offers a relatively simple solution – why not apply the questioning and critical thinking skills that are so aggressively encouraged in class to grammar itself?
I am not advocating any sort of grammar anarchy in which we throw the old rules out the window in favor of whatever we feel like saying or writing at the moment. However, the singular they as in, “After someone uses the bathroom, they should wash their hands,” is an example of a descriptive rule of American English that is widely used and understood among its population, yet forbidden (arbitrarily, it seems) by prescriptive rules of Standard English. This discrepancy, Curzan opines, “should lead all speakers, including students, to the question, Who says we can’t write they?” (872). If a change is justified, why not consider it? Just as we continually update dictionaries with new words as they become common in popular usage, why shouldn’t we feel comfortable with updating grammar to better reflect the needs of the times? If a language is to stand the test of time, we must remember its function as a medium of communication, one that requires updating and improving lest it become obsolete. After all, the scholars that refused to incorporate change and insisted on preserving Latin in its pristine form are credited with just that – keeping it perfectly intact while alienating its speakers and eventually relegating it to the isolation of medicine and academia. Similarly, systematically squashing all attempts to innovate within grammar may one day lead to its demise. Grammar, like language in general, must be as mutable as the people who use it in order to succeed as a clarifier of communication.
Indeed, it is important to appreciate grammar’s role as a regulator of language. Certainly, many of its rules are quite arbitrary and we may not understand their origin. But just because something is arbitrary doesn’t mean that we don’t need it. For example, there is nothing inherently wrong with driving on the left side of the road. (People in England do it every day!) Yet as Americans, we are compelled to drive on the right side of the road under penalty of arrest, tickets, fines, etc. Of course this doesn’t mean that the right side of the road is better suited for driving, or the asphalt is smoother, etc. – we just need to pick a side and enforce it so that motorists don’t race around wherever they please in a constant state of danger and collision. We need traffic laws so that the American traffic system doesn’t devolve into chaos. And in order to everybody to understand each other and keep life running as smoothly as possible, we need grammar rules so that the English language doesn’t devolve into chaos.
These are the social and political reasons that Curzan refers to for the elevation of Standard English to its current status, and they are extremely valid. It is only when the social and political aspect begins to override the logic behind a certain grammatical rule that there is a need to question and change this grammar system. But when this situation arises and we realize that a change would indeed be logical, we shouldn’t be afraid that we are contaminating English or that we are somehow lowering its status. As Curzan writes, “Nonstandard varieties are not illogical or any less rule-governed, in the descriptive sense, than Standard English.” (876). Standard English is just a dialect, and it is only important because somebody long ago decided to choose it as a standard for regulation so that we all might understand each other a little better. But bringing in nonstandard substitutes for esoteric Standard English rules is merely exchanging one rule for another. And if the new rule makes sense to the speakers and writers of a language, then updating the language will help it last longer, not contribute to its end.