Saturday, January 07, 2006

Do You Talk Good?

There are two models of grammar and language use: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive grammar suggests that everyone must speak precisely as the grammar book dictates. Descriptive grammar suggests than everyone speaks their own languages perfectly, with whatever regional variations that may entail.

I subscribe to the second school of thought, which caused a major disagreement with one of my colleagues the other day. I suggested a student did not belong in ESL, saying, “She speaks English better than me.” The teacher, for whom English was a second language, corrected me, saying “She speaks English better than I,” and gave a long speech suggesting I should not be teaching English, as I was profoundly incompetent.

Nonetheless, “She speaks English better than I,” doesn’t sound right to me. I’m well aware of what grammar books say, having taught them for years. I can accept “She speaks English better than I do,” but without the do, it sounds artificial and pretentious.

I’d say that, whatever regional variations may form their language use, virtually all kids in this country are aware of more of less “standard” American English through mass media. Now Latin, being a dead language, may have stricter rules, but English is a living, evolving thing. No matter how much it breaks our hearts, whom, for example, is probably bound for extinction.

I’d also strongly argue that people who speak by ear are far more proficient than those who need to consult rules of grammar, whatever their languages may be.

Written language is a lot tougher, and there’s far less variation. We all say gonna, but it’s not acceptable in academic writing, which every kid needs to learn.

So what do you think? Let me phrase this as objectively as possible--Was the grammar book carried down the mountain by Moses along with the Ten Commandments, or does language ebb and flow with the tide?
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