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Killing Grammar: Part II of a Three-Part Series


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Killing Grammar: Part II of a Three-Part Series

A group of young school kids writing at their desk in class (Halfpoint/Getty Images) The year was 1974. That was the last time a set of comprehensive guidelines would be issued on how to teach English usage in American schools. The author was Robert C. Pooley of the University of Wisconsin, with the backing of…

Killing Grammar: Part II of a Three-Part Series
A group of young school kids writing at their desk in class (Halfpoint/Getty Images)

The year was 1974. That was the last time a set of comprehensive guidelines would be issued on how to teach English usage in American schools. The author was Robert C. Pooley of the University of Wisconsin, with the backing of the National Council of Teachers of English. He wrote these guidelines after a distinguished career in teaching English grammar and usage.

Pooley was reacting in part against the view that English teachers had stopped being linguistic traffic cops (by correcting students’ speech and writing) and had instead begun assembling data on how often traffic laws were violated — without issuing tickets. This descriptivist approach to language has long been viewed by linguistic conservatives as the “anything-goes school.”

But Pooley believed in inculcating Standard English, and his approach was sophisticated. As we saw in the previous column, he recommended correcting grade-school students for basic errors only. Anything more advanced was to be left to middle-school and high-school teachers.

Viewed from the vantage of 2020, his 1974 declaration about middle-schoolers seems oversanguine: “Many students have gained sufficient acquaintance with the idiom of Standard English to use most pronouns in their various positions correctly, to use various forms of the common irregular verbs correctly, and to use plurals and possessives with reasonable accuracy.” Perhaps he intended a hedge in the first word of that sentence: Many. Or perhaps he intended a tacit follow-up: Many others have not.

Pooley was a realist about influences other than school: “Rarely is the influence of the elementary school strong enough to overcome nonstandard habits formed and reinforced in the home and community environment.” But couldn’t the same be said of higher grades?

Middle-school students, Pooley recognized, are making the transition from years of unselfconscious childhood to self-conscious adolescence. As parents know all too well, children of this age won’t learn from injunctions and scoldings. The only hope is to arouse in students the internal urge to make a good impression on others. But this desired urge is doubtless in conflict with social pressures not to be set apart from peers. So there’s a real challenge in reaching all the pupils. In short, it can’t be done.

For those who do wish to learn Standard English, the instruction should be available at school. The middle-school teacher must be ingenious in arousing the urge that some students will have to achieve credibility among listeners and readers. That’s the goal — stirring an ambition, not imposing a set of rules.

Yet in the course of awakening this feeling, Pooley recommended that all the following speech habits be taught as unacceptable in Standard English (remember that the asterisk marks nonstandard usage):

*Will you wait for John and I? [Read John and me.]

*Let him and I do the work. [Read him and me.]

*She invited we girls to the party. [Read us girls.]

*He ask me to go. [Read asked.]

*She done the work well. [Read did.]

*She give me the picture. [Read gave.]

*He run all the way. [Read ran.]

*Then he came to me and says . . . [Read said.]

*She has began the book. [Read begun.]

*The bell has rang. [Read rung.]

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*One of the books are lost. [Read is.]

*Each of the books are interesting. [Read is.]

*You had ought to do that. [Read you ought.]

*I don’t like these kind of stories. [Read this kind or these kinds.]

*Jane don’t have no pen. [Read doesn’t have a pen or has no pen or even hasn’t got a pen.]

*If he’d have come . . . or If he’d of come . . . [Read if he had come.]

*I don’t have nothing to do. [Read don’t have anything.]

Is that a lot of work for teachers? Doubtless it would be in some parts of the country more than others.

Some of these nonstandard usages seem fairly common in 2020. Tune in to any newscast, and you’re likely to hear pronoun problems; some irregular-verb problems (for example, *The ship sunk yesterday [read sank]); subject–verb agreement errors (for example, *One of the polling places are having problems [read is having problems], or *Each of our guests are experts [read is an expert]); and *these kind in place of this kind or these kinds. What used to be the realm of middle-school English is now considered the domain of hypercritical sticklers.

Even in 1974, Pooley encouraged middle-school teachers not to devote time to the subjunctive mood of the verb. “If only it were true!” is a contrary-to-fact condition in which traditionalists want the subjunctive were. It’s common, of course, to say “If only it was true!” (If only that weren’t true!) Pooley advised that the subjunctive is “a literary distinction of no basic importance to the seventh grade.” He recommended not teaching it at all.

Middle-school teachers were to pick their battles. Pooley recommended that no junior-high class instruction should be devoted to these things:

  • Using who where whom would be strictly called for.
  • Somebody left their lights on. (Even in 1974, Pooley was tolerant of the singular they.)
  • Tim is taller than me. (Traditionalists who view than as a conjunction, not a preposition, want I in place of me.)
  • Using like as a conjunction (Study your lesson like I do).
  • The loose placement of only (I only saw her once).

Teachers were urged to expand students’ powers of communication, not contract them. Even children could understand, Pooley said, that the rules of games such as tennis and checkers aren’t imposed to hamper play but instead to make successful play possible.

That’s as good an analogy today as it was a half century ago.

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