Monthly Archives: March 2009

To Be or Not To Be: Grammar is the Question!

Dr. John Austin was the Chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at Georgia State University during my undergraduate degree program.

Although – on paper – he taught me advanced German language courses, he also taught me to have an infinite appreciation for Linguistics and Grammar. He pointed me towards fantastic books, such as Baugh and Cable’s “History of the English Language”, Noam Chomsky‘s books, and riveting concepts – like understanding the connection between German-English (they share a common predecessor language) through a discussion of the Great Germanic Consonant Shift of (circa) 300AD. He would also give language advice, and once described to me that language acquisition and strategic family relationships could maintain up to 2 separate languages inside the environment of a 3rd language. (i.e. Mother-Child can speak one language, Family nucleus can speak another language…then into the 3rd language of the environment outside the home.)

Cool stuff, right? Way to get my linguistic geek on!!

But apart from his book recommendations, concepts and advice, one particular phrase he stated in class reminded me of the main complaint featured in a recent article I read the other day.

Dr. Austin said, “Grammar should be DEscriptive and not PREscriptive,” meaning that grammar should be sensitive to language trends – and should endeavor to update its rules to match language convention, rather than cling to outdated, obsolete language laws – even when they’re far outside common vernacular.

Just to clarify, his point wasn’t that we should abandon lessons about English grammar, or that we should abort any attempts to standardize phrasing or conjugation! But he felt that grammar rules were often being enforced for their tenure, instead of for their accuracy, relevance and validity.

And rightly so, it seems! Martha Brockenbrough posted an article entitled, “Errors That Aren’t: 12 Grammar Rules You Can Toss Out The Window” wherein she brings to light 12 areas where grammar has failed to keep itself current and relevant.  Please read the article!

You’ll see that she is both correct and amusing in her observations, but alas – if she had studied under Dr. John Austin, this would not have come as such a surprise to her!!  With his great quote, she would have been aware of grammar’s stodgy, change-resistant character and would have investigated this grammar flaw a full decade earlier!!

But this raises an excellent point overall, though – who is going to take charge of grammar and keep it accountable to current verbiage? The French have a designated a special organization to deal with language issues, L’Académie française, – but the US does not have a designated body of learned professionals to deal with these issues. So who are we gonna call?

Alles in allem, here’s a virtual toast to Dr. John Austin, a professor of exceptional learning and talent. Thank you for having launched me in -what’s become- my most passionate, personal life interest. Vielen Dank, Herr Doktor Austin!!

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