It is hard to discuss any topic today without someone playing the race card—even the seemingly neutral subject of grammar. Is requiring students to learn correct grammar and punctuation a form of linguistic bigotry? The simple answer is no. Here’s why not.
Rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage are not moral absolutes, but neither are they completely arbitrary. They are based on an inductive study of that usage which is national (i.e., not limited to one region, race, or class), current (i.e., neither archaic nor so new as not yet to be universally accepted), and reputable (i.e., reflecting the practice of professional writers who have been edited by professional editors in nationally respected publications). This kind of English, known as “Standard English,” is relevant and needful to be known because not being able to use it will obviously be a handicap in business, politics, communication, or education. Why? While each region, ethnic group, and class will have its own particular habits of word choice, pronunciation, and even syntax, Standard English is understandable by anyone. Why would business persons, politicians, communicators, or educators want to erect unnecessary barriers in front of huge swaths of their potential audience? Their insistence that professionals acknowledge the three criteria is simply good sense. Often the people who most object to the requirement of learning standard English are the ones who would benefit from it the most.
How does this work? People called “Descriptive Grammarians” describe that national, current, and reputable usage, based on the study of thousands of pages culled from those respected publications, and then formulate it into rules that basically say, “If you want to pass yourself off as a professional in your writing, here’s how to do it (or how not to do it).” Hmmm. Professionals do not tend to write in incomplete sentences except in particular circumstances or for particular effects. OK, outside of those circumstances (see the paragraph on exceptions below), “Thou* shalt not write unintentional fragments.”
Then “Prescriptive Grammarians,” i,e., school teachers and professors of freshman writing, try to enforce those rules because that is the only way you can get lazy human beings to learn them. So the rules are not arbitrary. And there is nothing racist about these standards. The speech habits of poor whites or of posh valley girls or of pseudo-intellectual pedants fail the tests of being national, current, and reputable just the same as the jargon of the ghetto does, and for the same reasons. Informed Prescriptive Grammarians do not denigrate the various dialects of their students, which all add to the richness of the language. They are just trying to ensure that their students are able to use Standard English when they need to, and are sensitive to when they need to—writing formal papers or filling out a job application, for instance.
But the rules almost all have exceptions. A fragment, for example, is often the most effective answer to a rhetorical question. To understand that exception, simply contemplate the lameness of the following exchange. “What is the best answer to a rhetorical question?” “It is a complete sentence.” Then compare the punch of “What is the best answer to a rhetorical question?” “A fragment.” Part of learning competence in the use of Standard English is learning what the situations are in which various linguistic deployments are expected, required, or are simply good or less good options. I, for example, use Southern dialect and colloquialisms all the time in informal conversation, but not (usually) when I’m writing a paper for publication.
Go thou* and do likewise.
*Observant readers will note my violation of the “current” standard. It is used for rhetorical effect, and I know what I’m doing, so I can get away with it. 😉
For more writing by Dr. Williams, go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, or Reflections from Plato’s Cave–essays in pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty.