On “poisonous tomatoes” of grammar teaching

Dec 14, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting I wrote about poor standards of teaching language and grammar in schools and the resulting misperceptions leading to “epistemological populism” (any wonder that U.S. school students came in 14th in reading against other OECD countries?). To continue with this theme and with Geoffrey Pullum’s quote, today I will look at some of the examples

where teachers disapprove of tomatoes and teach that they are poisonous (and evidence about their nutritional value is dismissed as irrelevant)

Numerous proscriptions of prescriptive grammar, to be found in grammar and usage manuals, rule out certain usages and condemn forms generally in use. In the words of one of my students, Peter Brodie:

The problem is that we tend to teach, not the truths of English Usage, but the certitudes of English Grammar; not English as it is, but English as some sciolist opines it ought to be. (Or used to be: in our reverence for the past, we espouse the grammatical practices of the 19th century — though we would hardly heed 19th century science or medicine.

For example, we are told that a preposition is a bad word to end a sentence with. We are admonished to not split infinitives. We are told: “Don’t use no double negatives!”. And we are told not to start a sentence with and

What nonsense! The only reason we need to be told these things at all is that people actually say (and occasionally write) such things. And people will continue to violate such nonsensical rules, which “disapprove of” some perfectly good English constructions and “teach that they are poisonous” (to the mind, surely!).

Take the problem of stranding prepositions. Many languages — Latin and Russian included — simply do not allow the option of saying What did you talk about?. In such languages (which constitute a majority of the world’s languages), the only option is to front the preposition together with the relative pronoun: About what did you talk?. English allows both the fronting and the stranding options, although admittedly in many cases (as in the examples above) the stranding option sounds better. So which option to chose?

This is not a new problem either: the proscription against preposition stranding in English was created by John Dryden in 1672 when he objected to Ben Jonson’s 1611 phrase the bodies that those souls were frightened from. Dryden didn’t provide the rationale that gave rise to his suggestion that the sentence should be restructured to front the preposition.

Ninety years later, in his 1762 A Short Introduction to English Grammar Robert Lowth wrote:

The Preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs and joined the verb at the end of the Sentence … as, ‘Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with.’ … This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversations, and suits very well with the familiar style if writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.

Note that although Lowth recommends the use of the fronting option in writing (especially, “with the solemn and elevated style”), he himself uses the stranding option:

“…This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to.”

Nor does he completely rule out the stranding option for speech, for “common conversations” and “the familiar style if writing”. But later prescriptive grammarians took the proscription against preposition stranding as an absolute. It is such absolutist grammatical despotism that the author of “This is nonsense up with which I will not put” revolts against (this quote is attributed alternatively to W. Churchill and B. Shaw). The irony of this expression is, of course, in that by following the injunction against stranded prepositions it breaks up another prescriptive (and in fact, descriptive) rule of English grammar: it breaks up an idiomatic, phrasal verb put up.

In the following postings, we will look at two other examples of “poisonous tomatoes” of English grammar: split infinitives and double negatives.

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