The Politics of Teaching Grammar

The pronoun/antecedent debate about “they” has continued at the NCTE Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning forum—mostly by advocates of prescriptive grammar.

That many English teachers continue to beat the drum for prescriptive rules is troubling—as I noted earlier when calling for descriptive grammar and conventional awareness. Troubling on one level since prescriptive grammar is solidly refuted by linguistics and the history of the English language [1]; troubling on another level since one staunch defense of the rules posted at the forum by an English teacher included a dangling modifier—highlighting that prescriptive grammarians often by necessity are themselves picking and choosing which “rules” to emphasize (an ironic type of descriptive grammar).

Another post called for ELA teachers to “hold the line with pronoun – antecedent agreement” because “[w]hile I think that grammar is a reflection of society, this is really about singular vs. plural.  It is not a political platform.”

And that last claim, I think, is an important place to consider further why a rules-based approach to language is failing both the language and our students.

First, critical pedagogy and critical literacy begin with the recognition that all human interaction, including language and teaching, is political. As Joe Kincheloe explains about teaching:

[P]roponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (p. 2)

And thus, making the claim that students must conform to prescriptive rules of language usage because those rules are not political is both a political act itself and a false claim that language can somehow be politically neutral. Endorsing prescriptive grammar instruction cannot be divorced from the historical fact that standard grammar has been used to perpetuate racism, sexism, and classism

As well, the literature we teachers of ELA often assign—from George Orwell’s 1984 and essays to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—illustrates that who controls language controls people; these works also highlight how that imbalance of power is unfair.

As linguists show, all identifiable types of language usage (standard English, AAVE, etc.) are simply somewhat cohesive versions, none any superior to the other except that some group in power creates that status of standard or “correct.”

Therefore, again, all language usage and the teaching of language are inevitably about power, always political.

With that context, then, the teaching of ELA should prefer an authoritative stance instead of an authoritarian one (see the writings of Paulo Freire).

Authoritative teaching of language generates teacher authority based on that teacher’s knowledge and experience with language (in terms of grammar, I would argue that includes essentially linguistics and the history of the English language). Authoritative teaching seeks to foster the student’s authority through that students’ understanding conventional usages as well as the biases associated with those usages.

Authoritarian teaching of language is the rules approach, in which teacher authority is grounded in the status of being the teacher, and the authoritarian stance necessarily asserts the authority’s (teacher’s) politics and mutes the politics of the subservient (student). Authoritarian teaching simply demands compliance—applying rules because they are rules.

As teachers of ELA, we are serving our students and the language well if we see language usage as something to be investigated and interrogated—not as a mechanism for imposing our authority on the student.

Those students can and should be guided in investigating and interrogating why we have standard English—who it benefits and why so that their own awareness about the power of language serves them and not those who use it to deny other people their political voices.

[1] Both in the false notion that some language use is inherently superior to others (as opposed to the arbitrary nature of standard forms based on who has political power), and against the reality that all language usage evolves, changes (and thus, trying to stop that change is misunderstanding the basic nature of language).

See Also

Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English”

A Tale of Two Teachers: The Politics of Personal Teaching, Nat Hentoff

9 comments

  1. philiprojc

    Interesting post! Your distinction between authoritative and authoritarian teaching brings to mind something Steven Pinker discussed in his book on style. Namely, the best writers make their readers feel smart rather than simply proving their own intelligence. Breaking down the artificially rigid political hierarchy between the educator and the educated.

  2. Pingback: The Politics of Teaching Grammar by Paul Thomas - Garn Press
  3. ael1969

    So I am curious about how your position on the pronoun use of “they”. Should it be interchangeable between singular and plural?

    For instance, how would you understand the following sentence:

    Jan went to the store, finding what they were looking for in the produce department.

      • ael1969

        So you can’t understand the potential problems that interchangeable singular/plural usages present? I get what you’re saying about being a descriptive grammarian, but I wonder (am I allowed to wonder since it could by construed as a hypothetical?) if primary school language learners, say 2nd graders, would be confused. While I personally adhere to a critical pedagogy and believe discussions about how meaning is constructed are appropriate for a college audience, I think trying to force that discussion onto younger learners is probably not appropriate. That said, in the interest of gender politics, I think that gendered pronouns present their own set of issues; so I acknowledge the subject’s privilege to use those as she sees fit. However, I also accept that English writing puts the onus of communication on the writer; therefore if there are obvious potential communication breakdowns that could arise in the act of reading related to not understanding how pronouns are being used, I hold that it up to the writer to clarify their usage with a statement etc. somewhere in the text.

  4. ael1969

    I want to clarify one thing I said: I think that discussions of meaning are appropriate for a younger audience, but I think a discussion about “they” as being both singular and plural could be counterproductive for young learners who may not understand or know how to position such an apparent contradiction in their own writing.

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