Language has rules. Abide by them.

We don’t mean to sound elitist here, but the rules of the English language have already been invented; you can’t just make them up as you go along. I could use any of 100 examples here, but one of the most recent examples to cross our desks is this one: “Another importance in my life is my schoolwork.” You can’t use “importance” like that; the writer should’ve said “Another important thing” instead. That one should’ve been eradicated by an English teacher way before this essay got to us. It’s OK if you don’t know all the rules of grammar and usage yourself, but it’s your responsibility to run your essay by someone who does before you send it in.

13 thoughts on “Language has rules. Abide by them.”

  1. As a linguistics and English professor, I can tell you that the rules of English, or any other language, are not set in stone and are constantly changing. Also, there is a specific and elitist set of individuals that tries to make us believe that we should be judged on our words, rather than what they mean. If we look at this example, it is clear what is meant, despite it being delivered in a variety of language that is of the spoken variety. The type of elitist language you are promoting here is closest to that already spoken by the White upper and upper middle class. This means that you are putting minority students and those from the lower classes at a disadvantage. Admittedly, I am part of the academic system that reinforces some of these ideas. But, I try to counter it from within. I temper my admonitions to my students by telling them that these are the ways in which you will be judged, but try to judge others on their ideas, not the language they are delivered in.

    In our multicultural society, it would be nice if websites like this would take a moment to admit some of the problematic aspects of the system, rather than simply reinforcing a type of biased and empty dogma that is partially for the purpose of keeping minorities and the working class in their place.

    However, this website is udeful for teaching my linguistics class about the inequities and dangers of this type of prescriptive language enforcement.

  2. James, I’m happy you responded. You make some good, if obvious, points about language being fluid and different people using different language to communicate the same ideas. But most of your comments seize on the irrelevant, and if your teachings are typical of what the average student hears in college with regard to the importance of writing and communication, then you and your colleagues are certainly part of the problem. I’ll briefly reply to your ideas that are most in need of redirection:

    1) You contend that “there is a specific and elitist set of individuals that tries to make us believe that we should be judged on our words, rather than what they mean.”

    Setting aside the Skull-and-Bones Language Police conspiracy theory, you miss an obvious point. Until science perfects the mind-reading machine, the words one uses are the only way of communicating he/she means. Even if one student’s poor language skills (that’s real-worldspeak for “prescriptive language enforcement,” James) produce a semi-intelligible
    idea, that student will still be routinely passed over (for many things, but let’s focus here on money and jobs) in favor of the students that speak the language that we Order of the Evil White Elitist Prescriptive-Language Conspiratorial Society Members speaks.

    I am being facetious, of course. Maybe even a bit jocular. I definitely hope you use this site as an example for your students; it will pit theory versus practice and allow your students to decide whose comments are more relevant to their lives and their futures. You are obviously welcome, of course, to submit to your students that they “should” be able to use any language they wish to express their ideas and “should not” be judged for it. I would simply counter by saying, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, they “can’t” use any language they wish and they “will” be judged if they can’t communicate as others wish them to. Specifically, others from whom they desire scholarship money and, later on, jobs.

    2) Despite our exacting standards of “prescriptive language enforcement,” working-class and minority students make up a huge portion of our scholarship winners, and always have. I know your strength is theory rather than practice, James, but practice and experience tell us that despite your low expectations, minorities and working class are surprisingly capable of learning to communicate in the language of higher lifeforms such as the “White Upper Class Whites.” We’re not as intractable as you think!

    3) You say “it would be nice if websites like this would take a moment to admit some of the problematic aspects of the system….”

    If you’re interested, you should read the entire site, which you clearly haven’t done. The site’s reason for being is to help students win scholarship money — period. Your students, and students nationwide, are profoundly lucky to have thousands of government-employed English lecturers to hold court on linguistic theory while they listen intently. My job is to teach students (even minorities and poor white kids, James) how to get scholarship money. There are only a handful of us who do this, so we leave the linguistic dogma discussions to you. There are plenty of you, and we are busy with other matters.


    As it turns out, I’ve really gone on and sort of made an example of James here. That’s not my normal M.O. and it wasn’t my original intent, but I wouldn’t post my response here if I didn’t intend for it to be instructive for future visitors. James is a perfect example of an academic who’s supposed to be helping students, but in fact is hurting them with bad advice. He feels entitled to dictate to those of us who — dare I remind everyone — spend thousands of dollars every year from our own pockets in order to help students pay for college. He says we’re doing it wrong, we’re not doing enough, and — wait for it… — we’re trying to keep minorities and poor whites in their place all the while! James would be comical if he wasn’t so typical.

    But he is, and that’s why I replied to him publicly. I expect we’ll hear more from James (and I hope we hear from some of his students) and he’ll reveal even more of what I think you should be wary of. In any case, keep the comments and question coming!


  3. I am an African-American student that went to school in the inner-city during the earlier years of my childhood and transferred to a school in the suburbs my the fourth grade year. Although I believe the way Mr. Barsch’s comments have been present were a little harsh, he’s speaking the absolute truth. Just as your students will not receive a scholarship from for failing to follow the rules of the English language, they will probably also be looked over by a number of prestigous institutions for failure of following the rules of the English. Colleges and employers alike do not care where your students came from, they only care about what students they feel have the ability to get the job done (black and white students). You both seem to feel very strongly about your positions on this topic and I believe that you both have probably wrongly accused one another of being someone you are not. I see James as a concerned professor that sees so much potential in the students he teaches everyday, yet so many of them are forced to drop out of school so they’re not there long enough to learn the rules of the English language or what it really takes to succeed in the real world. I also see that reasons such as these sparked the very creation for this website (and as Josh stated before) had you read the entire contents of the website that reason would be apparent. Josh, your suggestions have been very helpful to me personally and James, your concerns make me feel proud that there are still teachers out there fighting for other blacks students such as myself. Maybe you two could find a common understanding and the both of you could work together, because it seems to me that your both working towards the same goal.

  4. Randa: Thanks for your comments! I already think you have a great career ahead of you as a diplomat or a negotiator! 🙂 Good luck to you, and come back and comment more anytime!


  5. All of that banter was interesting to read….
    I am glad Randa replied. She obviously was able to rise above the public school systems’ dumbing down techniques of the past 20+ years.
    Way back in 1990, when my son attended a school that taught wholistic language (meaning, basically, anything goes as long as you attempt to communicate,) I exercised my right as a parent to see that he got a decent education in the language arts, which meant he would be taught to read well, spell correctly, and put together a grammatically correct sentence both verbally and in writing. There were no private schools nearby, so I withdrew him from first grade in the middle of the year, and home-schooled him.
    I am constantly appalled at the lack of education that much of today’s youth seem to have. Young adults working cash registers do not know how to make change. College students do not know how to spell or write a simple essay with proper grammar and punctuation. Even “mature adults” (30-something and up) that I encounter do not know the difference between their and there, or it’s and its. Professional publications frequently have numerous errors. Even newsletters and informational flyers that SCHOOLS mail to parents have words spelled wrong. (Honestly, when the message from the principal has grammatical errors, how much faith does that instill in parents?)
    I do not consider myself an elitist just because I expect American citizens to use proper English! The harsh reality of this life is that schools, jobs, and yes, even scholarships, are highly competetive and the better prepared and educated you are, the better chance you have over a less well-spoken person.
    And, I personally resent the accusation that a person having those expectations makes that person prejudiced. It certainly seems, James, that you are the one doing the judging, not I.

  6. Two thoughts:

    1. There are plenty of folks who know all the rules but have nothing to say.
    Proper grammar and spelling are useless without content.

    2. If you can correct what someone says or writes, it probably means you understand it. (So why do you need to correct it?)

    Former teacher of English as a second language
    Professional Technical Writer

  7. Couldn’t agree with you more on Number 1, Heather. The answer to number 2, though, is obvious: Just because I understand it doesn’t mean that everyone else will, or that everyone else will be as error-tolerant. It’s a certainty, in fact, that others won’t be as tolerant, and those mistakes will cost them jobs and money (a recurrent theme on this site).

    When you were an ESL teacher, did you decline to tell your students when they made English mistakes just because you yourself were able to decipher their intended meaning? Let’s hope not! 🙂


  8. Standard American English (a spoken and written dialect of English used by academia, newspapers, T.V, etc.) is the English dialect of power. If you want the jobs that the power elite hold you must join the party and talk and write the way they talk and write. That’s all. It’s not a right or wrong issue.
    Many people speak one dialect, but most are capable of “code switching” when the environment demands the switch. That’s really what people need to know. We live in an increasingly multicultural country. Usually people with some type of language learning disability cannot make the switch so easily.
    Language is just pattern recognition and those patterns develop in cultural groups as they are separated from other groups. It’s like frogs making random mutations and changes when they live in different ponds. People make a big deal of the “correctness” of one language pattern over another, when it is really a judgment of how well the “other” dialect matches your own. Very ethnocentric really, but I know it’s hard for people to see it.

  9. I think it is better to use standard language that will be understood by any body other than believing in the power of the listener to understand what the person intends to say since not all people will have the ability to interprete something said in the right way.Why don’t we as Josh put it help the learner get the right point and leave out the idea of interpreting his ideas from what s/he wants to say

  10. “understanding” is relative. No style of communication allows for 100 percent information transfer between the sender and the receiver. This is as a result of “noise” which reduces that style’s efficiency which arises due the ever present i.o.w permanent differences between the twos method of cognition. This is where the relativity occurs. This is especially true in the case of trying to comprehend an essay written in a style that is vague and lacks conciseness because it does not follow a set standard. this promotes the reader or rather forces him to try to fill in the gaps using his own reasoning. the inevitable consequence is that this WILL cause incoherences between what the writer tried to convey and what the read understood from the written text. the noise is made worse as the reader grasp of the essay using what he understood from what was read before is used and the resulting frustration cause a run away cycle. Compounding the issue again is that reading many essays in close succession is mentally tiring even more so when the above is the majority or would be given that many students submit such essays. But i guess the degree of the incoherence would be reduced with skill obtained from either experience or a naturally diverse level of understanding..

  11. @Marnel:

    You mention that people can’t understand each other with ease, that they must reduce this problem with: a) experience and b) being able to understand a lot, naturally. I’d like to point pose a different point.

    I find it funny that you comment on the relativity of language and how readers often have to fill in blanks when they read something messed up. Funny why? Because in your post, you have created for me and, I think, for a lot of people this exact scenario. Your post was heavily structured but with too few solid, simple language constructs. What I mean is that you began your post with two sentences I could understand, but then… the third sentence?

    —“This is a result of ‘noise’ which reduces that style’s efficiency which arises due the ever present i.o.w permanent differences between the twos method of cognition.”—

    First off, do tell what “i.o.w.” is, for us of the unenlightened, please? Then, where did the apostrophe go in “twos”? Furthermore, two “which”s don’t usually *work* because I do not, unless an author’s going for a specific nuance, encounter it in the language I, “with skill obtained from … experience,” know and am familiar with. Additionally, newspapers, novels, and personal communication usually don’t take out the “to” in “due to” (another problem in the third sentence). The next sentences aren’t much better.

    It doesn’t gel; it “does not follow a set standard”!

    Relativity, you say? Sure, understanding is relative, and sure, discrepancies in individual comprehension will most definitely occur, but the key to reducing these is good skill. Rules of composition (e.g. a complex sentence is made of one dependent and one independent clause) make a person’s thoughts–always changing but even then always undeniably there–clear-cut the same way the Pythagorean theorem makes the rules of trigonometry–also infallible–clear-cut. Begin with something that *should* be understood always and in all ways; if someone can’t quite get it, that’s their problem. They didn’t learn ’nuff of the language arts!

    Okay, Marnel, sorry if I got carried away, but it’s exactly that type of paragraph that would make up a headache-causing scholarship essay. In the end, I’m simply subscribing to Josh’s theory on the importance of training yourself in English communication arts. Eh ben, ça alors! 😉

  12. Sheesh what a whole lot of discussion! Many interesting and valid points, after reading through most I think there is a simple enough conclusion to be made. Language is meant for communication and being in a very multicultural society (I’m Canadian) there are many different types of language. Txting, slang, ethnic, various fields of English are all different flavors of the same thing and it has been my experience that the best communication occurs when these flavors aren’t mixed. If I know that I’ll be interacting with a different flavor I’ll simply change my approach. It’s fully comparable to an academic addressing students differently than other professors or to an adult addressing a child. These shifts aid in communication and understanding, being multicultural means we are unique, that we can’t possibly understand everything out there and that at the same time we need to adapt to interact with anyone. Sure this includes the adapting on the recieving end of a communication but for sure not in the case of an application to a higher placed group.

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