“Why are you being so hard on us? None of us wants to be a professional writer!”
–Business writing class student to his professor
I’m in the process of reading a series of essays by Richard Weaver, a rhetoric and composition teacher who was also a conservative opinion writer in the 1950s and early 1960s. His political opinions are hit-or-miss with me, but his opinions on the teaching of English represent some deep thought and have spurred me to write this little essay.
We don’t need no education…
I have heard most of the arguments against “proper” or “conventional” English:
- Language is ever evolving, slang is ever new
- New words and ideas are constantly appearing
- Nouns are verbed on a regular basis
- “Proper” English varies depending on which part of the world you are inhabiting when you are writing or reading
- No two people understand the same word the same way, so complete understanding between individuals and peoples is impossible
- Insisting on proper spelling, punctuation, or grammar makes you a “grammar Nazi”
You might agree with one or more of these arguments. And yet we continue to teach English in our schools, both as a basic skill and for specialized purposes, such as technical communication, science writing, playwriting, novel writing, poetry, and songwriting. If there are no standards, why do we bother?
Arguments for a consistent teaching of English
Achieving common understanding
When I visited Europe in 2009, I learned that rather than being the common tongue of a large population, German (Deutsch) was in fact a common lingua franca that allowed a number of tribes in North Central Europe with different languages communicate. For me, this lingua franca principle is one of the most important reasons why we need to establish, teach, and yes, insist on, a standard, consistent form of English: It makes communication between diverse peoples possible.
Preventing political pettifogging
Neologisms and political correctness are regular pet peeves of mine. George Orwell–a man of the left, from which the term “political correctness” originated in the first place–does a much better job of explaining the perils of PC than I can, so read his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The subject of neologisms is a regular headache for strict grammarians and people who lament the addition of “ain’t” to the dictionary. As a person who grew up reading science fiction, I don’t find new words or concepts terrifying or harmful to the English language (can you grok that?). That said, I have a problem with words that are created out of a political motivation to hide the truth–pettifogging, it’s called. My typical example of this is “downsizing” a corporatespeak word (note the neologism there) that means laying off a bunch of employees. It might sound like a more neutral or pleasing word, but it’s a euphemism for a painful reality. Changing what you call an unpleasant reality to something that sounds more pleasant does not change the reality.
Seeking out philosophical truths
The aforementioned Mr. Weaver argues that the teaching of proper English should not simply be for utility or tradition, but that it is a philosophical matter, as calling things by their proper names helps the student approach or apprehend the Truth of things. This requires a broad, subtle, and consistent understanding of words and how they are used. If you’re going to allow words to go astray and change meanings continually, you are in essence giving up on any common understanding of the Big Truths of Existence.
Making technology work
I’m not quite that lofty in my thinking. However, as I argued (unsuccessfully) when I was in graduate school, you must assume some commonality and reality-grounded use of language or our technologies simply will not work. My favorite field, aerospace, is a prime example. If you don’t have everyone from the engineering bullpen to the pilot’s cockpit all speaking and understanding the same words the same ways, aircraft cannot and will not fly safely. People will die. To ensure technical safety, you need consistency, which also requires a minimum level of correctness, quality, and understanding.
The best answer I could give to the student quoted above was to share an example from another of my travels, this time through the hill country of northwestern Virginia. My friends and I passed a movie theater marquee that was highlighting its current attraction, Batman Begins. However, the individual who posted the movie title had it as “Batman: The Biggenning.” I said, “You don’t want to be that guy or gal who makes their business look stupid.” However fluid language or spelling might get, businesses are still expected to get some basic things right.
Perhaps this last answer seems a bit lofty, along the lines of what Professor Weaver was preaching, but I’ll try to make it practical. I believe that striving for ongoing quality in English education should not just be a rear-guard action against linguistic barbarism. Our world is growing ever more interconnected, diverse, and complicated. Our machines–thinking and otherwise–are getting smarter, more powerful, and potentially more dangerous when mishandled.
The language we use–and right now English is the international language, for good or ill–shapes how we handle the complex mechanisms around us, both technological and social. Striving for a consistent, perhaps even elegant, level of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax can help ensure better thinking about what sort of world we want inhabit. Better and more subtle thoughts are made possible by a wider and wiser understanding of the language we use to communicate them. If acronyms, bad spelling, profanity, dislocated grammar, cloudy thinking, and emojis are to be the extent of the 21st century’s “deep thoughts,” that will tell our descendants as much about us as whatever ideas we hoped to convey. Surely our posterity deserves better.
I’ll close with Professor Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady, who provided a much better answer than I did to my student on why we should use the English language well:
“Think of what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language. It’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest sentiments that ever flowed in the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixture of sounds. That’s what you’ve set yourself to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it you will.”