Obviously, each of us has his or her own answer to this question. When I am asked I tell students that the way we talk changes rapidly and, because there is a solid cultural reason that we need to understand what people read and wrote a few hundred years ago, academics have a valid reason for slowing change in the English language. I'd be interested to learn what others say.

  • 1
  • 1
    Are you asking why good grammar matters? Or why it's a good idea to slow the evolution of the language? Or why students should take the time to learn proper grammar? Your title asks about the first, but your questions seems to be leaning more toward the other two questions. – J.R. Dec 9 '13 at 13:51
  • "why" does it matter? If you can answer first if it matters then you should be closer to an answer. If I were to say "Good grammar doesn't matter", what would be your reasons for contradicting me? – Mitch Dec 9 '13 at 14:32
  • @ everyone: The question was intended to provoke discussion. @ RegDwight: Yes, a fair restatement. @J.R., Yes, all of them. @ Mitch: Obviously, my first thought is the one posed in the text that follows the question. If it helps, I am using the word "cultural" in an anthropological context. – Michael Owen Sartin Dec 9 '13 at 15:02
  • Sometimes prescriptive grammar rules are the innovations, so "slowing change in the English language" can't be used to justify them. – snailplane Dec 9 '13 at 15:54
  • 1
    @Mitch: Surely you should say "Good grammer don't matter". – Tim Lymington Dec 18 '13 at 10:39

This depends on your audience, of course, but, assuming we're dealing with younger students, I wouldn't attempt to motivate them by explaining that they'll need to understand proper grammar so they can read and understand what people wrote centuries ago. After all, we're dealing with a generation where it's often a small victory when you can get them to read a book before watching the movie.

There's something to be said about proper grammar, though, particularly when it's time to start a profession, or even get a job. I remind my kids, "When you turn in a job application, it's probably going into a stack with 50 others. How will your application stand out, to the point where it gets pulled off the applicant pile, and put into the candidate pile?" When the application form asks, "Why do you want to work for our company?" and you can't muster anything much better than an internet cat ("Bcuz i need ca$h"), there's a good chance your application will collect dust for a long time. If you have a strong command of language, though – if you can be articulate, precise, and grammatical – you stand a much better chance of rising above your peers from the outset.

Sure, language evolves, but that's not a good excuse to remain ignorant.

As for slowing down change, I don't mind language evolving, but I'd rather not see it devolve. It's one thing to see a dictionary's usage panel gradually accept a new usage of a word, it's another to plainly sound unintelligent. Everyone will draw their own lines between what makes them bristle and where they are comfortable. Personally, I don't find the use of fun as an adjective particularly irritating, but I'd rather hear fingernails scrape across a chalkboard than hear funner in a sentence. But that's just me. If everyone drew their acceptability boundaries in the same place, there'd probably be little need for ELU.

  • 1
    No such thing as devolving language; only old speakers who don't like the way things are going. Pretty much the usual. – John Lawler Dec 12 '13 at 19:01
  • 2
    @John - I'll be honest, that was the one part of my answer I struggled with most. When does language change for the better, and when does it change for the worse? When does language change out of innovation, and when does it change out of ignorance? Which changes should be embraced, and which should be scorned? Language must change, but I'm not convinced that all change is good change, or that all who resist such changes are merely old sticks in the mud. – J.R. Dec 12 '13 at 19:31
  • 2
    It changes for the worse when few children speak it; that's what's happening to most of the languages in the world. It changes for the better every time somebody finds a new way to use it. Other than that, no value judgements about language change are valid. You might as well criticize sunspots or women's fashions, for all the good it will do. You really have to take the moral out of the oral; if you look carefully, you'll find most of the peeving is about class and race. – John Lawler Dec 12 '13 at 20:37

My answer is similar to J.R.'s, except my students read voraciously, and still do. One of my students, my son, gave me a book he enjoyed greatly: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. For about a year, I was unable to read it; it is full of sentence fragments. Regarding punctuation, he said, “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” While I loved His All the Pretty Horses, he takes it too far in the Road.

Where grammar is concerned, as a Latin teacher, I was unmoving. I always told my students that there would come a day that they would need to impress my generation with their command of the English Language. Here I agree completely with J.R. To stand out is a good thing. As for motivating others, it's like the best reason for etiquette - it puts people at ease. If you speak clearly and well, your audience won't struggle to understand your meaning.

  • 6
    The problem is that not enough people take Latin. It used to be that any English speaker who was getting educated encountered Latin, where you have to learn the grammar. After that exercise, they'd look back on English and say "Oh, that's the way it works". This was technically incorrect, but serviceable, because everybody knew what a participle was and what the accusative case was, because they'd studied Latin. Consequently, since English grammar had never been taught in English classes like it is in Latin classes, and nobody knows Latin any more, we don't teach any English grammar. – John Lawler Dec 12 '13 at 18:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .