As a grammarian, I’m a descriptivist instead of a prescriptivist. That is, I’d rather my students know what a specific context might expect of them than demand how they structure language in all contexts. Their knowing gerunds require possessives is only important to me because some future employer may see it as a sign of a thorough education. When a person makes pronouns agree, he or she communicates a specific background, a standard not applicable everywhere.
When a person imposes a standard on others, however, the effect is different. Occasionally people catch me in grammar errors and interrupt our conversation to crow over my mistake. Sometimes, if I say I feel bad about something—the correct usage because my sense of touch is intact—they reply “I feel badly too” to correct me… incorrectly. Couples will ask me to rule on the usage of their partner. “Tell why that’s wrong,” a husband or wife says, instructing me to wag my finger in an English teacherly way.
My reaction is a shrug. Language is fluid. Usage has always and will always change. Thankfully, we are creative and resourceful beings.
For grammatical sticklers, what’s correct is often not the issue. All of the situations above hint at self-congratulation, rectitude as a hedge against personal insecurity. I teach grammar to protect students from those who would judge them, those who use judgment to feel better about themselves.
I’d rather describe questions and issues surrounding writing than give prescriptive guidelines. This point of view rubs some colleagues the wrong way—it sometimes frustrates students as well—and I respect that some composition teachers try to help students by supplying concrete and manageable rules. Believe me, I see how happy a checklist makes students.
However, I keep coming back to my own teachers, the ones who lied to me. Because students often create fragments when they start sentences with “because,” my fourth grade teacher told me a sentence couldn’t start with the word. A sixth grade teacher told me I couldn’t use contractions in writing. And an eighth grade teacher said, “No beginning a sentence with ‘and.’” “First person is positively out,” my senior English teacher said, “and that includes ‘my.”
These teachers may have felt I wasn’t ready for the truth. Perhaps they wanted me to master writing their way before moving on to more advanced techniques. Maybe they were looking for standards to make grading easier.
Fine, but writing isn’t easy. If every essay had exactly the same rules, the same emblems of effectiveness, the same size, form, and purpose, essays would be easy, but they might also be predictable, stiff, and dull. I don’t need to read another expertly written and spiritless five-paragraph critical essay. I’ve read enough.
From a teacher’s standpoint, explaining when “I” is appropriate may be inefficient. Experience tells me giving students the chance to practice using first person can be frustrating—they often use “I feel” and “I think” and “I believe” lazily. Decisions are central to writing, however. I’d rather students practice deciding than practice following rules that, it turns out, may not be rules at all.
No one likes hearing excellence is a moving target, but part of excellence is discovering what’s effective here and now, in this situation. I tell students their next English teacher will have different expectations. Students learn a great deal from responding to the writing “rules” each teacher gives them. Every student, however, is ultimately responsible for his or her own rules.
While I’d like to help, making composition easier may not help at all. Unfortunately much of what we call “correct” is visible only in retrospect and easier to describe than prescribe.