Considering that we start learning it at birth, master it almost completely by four, and use it every day of our lives, it’s surprising how little people know about language. Even among writers, who should know better, misconceptions abound. When I’m not being a writer, I’m an anthropological linguist, which means I study the use of language in society. On Week 12 of my writing pilgrimage, I’m going to blend my two careers and blog about language.
I’ll start with a little myth-busting. Today and tomorrow, I’ll be writing about four of the most common misconceptions about language, along with the real story. Here are the first two:
The Myth: There is such as thing as correct language, and if you use it you are better and smarter than those who don’t.
The Truth: Terms like “correct language” or “proper grammar” don’t mean a lot, and they certainly don’t mean what most people think. Most grammar rules drilled into us in school are arbitrary and invented, and have nothing to do with effective or beautiful language.
This is a surprisingly controversial topic, and I should know: I’ve taught linguistics to generations of college students and have seen the confusion, anxiety, and straight-out anger it elicits. All your life you’ve been told that you should should use “proper grammar" and now someone comes along and says there’s no such thing?
The fact is, most of the grammar rules taught in school were made up by fussy little men writing textbooks in the 18th century, when the new middle class was desperate to distinguish themselves from poor people and used their access to education to do that.
For example, did you ever learn: “Never use two negatives in the same sentence. Two negatives make a positive”? Made up. Yep, by Rev. Robert Lowth, who put it in his Short Introduction to English Grammar, one of the most influential grammar works ever written. It was Lowth who decided that, if you say “I can’t get no satisfaction” you’re actually saying “I can get satisfaction.” After all, Lowth reasoned, in algebra, two negatives make a positive, right? It must be the same in language.
Lowth’s ideas spread throughout the English-speaking world and, ever since, millions of school children have learned his made-up rule as if it were divinely inspired. Which leads us to a second myth:
The Myth: Language is, should be, and can be logical.
The Truth: Nothing about any language is logical.
When Lowth wrote his textbook, he ignored a simple fact: Language isn't math.
Language purists frequently invoke logic when they’re dictating their prim little rules. But you don’t have to look far to find dozens of examples of inconsistent, counter-intuitive, and flat-out nonsensical grammar rules in “proper” language. Why do we say “I drink, I drank, I have drunk,” but not “I think, I thank, I have thunk?” What’s logical about saying “one mouse, two mice,” but not “one house, two hice”? And what’s with the past tense of go? Went? Really? Shouldn’t it be “goed” like any normal verb? There’s nothing logical about any of this—and you won’t find logic in any other language, either.
So am I saying we should all just speak the way we want and the hell with what our English teachers taught us? No. The stuff we know as “correct” is the language of power, and it confers enormous advantages. Use it and you’re more likely to get a job—or get your essay published.
But we should all be aware of what “correct” language really is: An arbitrary, largely invented set of rules designed to separate the haves from the have-nots. More prestigious, yes. Better, no.
Like this post? Check out more at the Writing as a Sacred Path Blog.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...