Confessions of a former grammar prescriptivist

[Edited: Links added]

Disclaimer: posted from the road, coming back from New Brunswick. Tomorrow or Tuesday I will come back to this post and the previous one to add links. Stay tuned!

I love words. As a lil tyke, I tore through series of all kinds, hardy boys and treehouse and animorphs and Lotr and Harry Potter and all the rest. Words were (and still are) the atoms of the worlds I escaped to.

I started learning the rules of grammar, both in school and from my parents and grandparents. Grandpa would make a loud ‘bzzzt’ if any of us grandkids used ‘like’ as a filler word, and Ms. Kopp had us diagram compound complex sentences. As a middle schooler, I took these rules for granted. While I liked to argue with teachers, having real, solid rules let me, with my advanced knowledge of said rules, hold a kind of power or superiority over classmates and siblings.

I looooooved to correct people’s grammar. I got in trouble at some point for passing a note in class, informing a classmate that ‘irregardless’ was not grammatical, at the expense of a teacher.

But I was wrong. Doubly wrong in that particular case, as ‘irregardless’ is a properly grammatical synonym for ‘regardless’. But I was wrong in a deeper sense, about what I was doing. It may not have been my fault; I had learned to correct grammar from a young age, and idolized, for instance, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. There remains a part of me that grows frustrated with “improper” punctuation or usage.

But I have learned the error of my ways. Grammar, spelling, usage, all of these language elements: we made them. And we can break them.

See, the top-pro grammar folks study linguistics. How people come to understand each other and the complex meanings we can evoke with sound or sign or text. They take it as an axiom that language is not some unmoving monolith; the rules of grammar and punctuation were not inscribed on some tablets outside the universe and handed down to us.

We made them so that we can communicate, and if we can do that effectively, all the rules in the world don’t mean diddly.

Now, if you are a naturally skeptical mind, you might challenge me and say: but we need consistent rules if we are going to understand each other!! We need teachers to teach the grammar that my teacher taught me and that my pappy’s pappy taught him, straight from his King James!

Is our quest really for understanding? Or is it to keep in place the power structures that privilege those who descend from privilege?

See, if grammar is something that you can get ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ then those who learn from their parents ‘how to talk right,’ (or even ‘how to speak correctly’) will have the advantage over those who only ever used words to get their point across. Just another way for discrimination to work.

Natural language has rules. Those rules are the object of study of scientists, but should not be the aim of instructors. If you had certain students who grew up in a null-g background, you would not teach them to obey the rules of gravity or punish them on tests if they could not stay down.

Teaching English has a place, for sure. I know well the difficulty of communicating, and how much difference it makes to practice and keep on practicing, to see the powerful examples of language superusers, the Kings and Dickensons and Foster Wallaces.

But we gotta cease with the prescriptivism, guys. We gotta recognize the rules for what they are; outdated, mistaught, misunderstood relics from an era when we thought we could know everything, and that people who didn’t know what we did we less than we were, less than good, less than human. It’s hurting real people!

Learning to self-regulate

[Edited: Links added]

Disclaimer: I am in the car going to New Brunswick for the World Pond Hockey Championship, posting from a smartphone. This post has no links until I can edit it + it’s hard to proofread etc. If you catch errors, send ’em my way.

Like what seems to be a majority of the population, I am a psychology hobbyist. I try to be a good amateur and learn the right terminology, take a few classes, and get rid of the worst of my misconceptions. If you are a real psychologist, apologies in advance for the mistakes. Let me know where I am mistaken or unclear; I am trying to learn on this blog.

It is a difficult field, even for the pros – analogies compare our current understanding of the mind to physics before Einstein, or, more pessimistic, before Newton. Those sayings don’t capture it, really; brains don’t seem to obey simple, consistent, universal laws that we can derive from lots of observation. People are more complex.

Of course, my interest in psych isn’t some attempt to push the field further and advance the state of human knowledge; it just seems practical! Other trite sayings reference the lack of an owners manual for the brain we get – some elementary neuroscience and psych and development seem as close as we have right now.

In psych, lots of the focus is on ‘outcomes’ of development given particular circumstances and influences. As someone interested in being successful and smart and happy and stuff, I look towards these outcomes as a source of explicit goals for my learning. Why futz around with guesswork if I can try to build up the best environment for myself based on the research, or find a shortcut to the outcome? I agree, no reason at all!

One of the positive outcomes the psych folk look for is self-regulation. The concept covers a wide array of emotional and mental skills – keeping anger in check, focusing on what you want, feeling how you want to feel. Regulating yourself.

I try to work on this. Mindfulness helps – noticing how I am feeling is necessary if I want to consciously change how I feel. Last year I wrote an article for the diamondback about practicing emotions. Basically, the idea was that we learn lots of things in school, but to get to super-saiyan, we’d have to expand our emotional capacity too. Get yourself terribly sad, then enraged, then overjoyed, flush with anticipation, annoyingly proud of yourself, repeat.

While I still think it is a cool idea, recently I haven’t been pushing it so hard. The more I read about the actual goals of the psych folks, the less the sheer emotional capacity seems the actual goal of development. In essence, don’t feel sad/angry/frustrated/lethargic unnecessarily. While I still try to mix my practice up with a range of emotions, I am sticking to the ones that feel good – amusement, self-satisfaction, excitement, hope, security, appreciation, and the like.

A big movement within psychology going on recently and now has been a gradual shift from a focus on pathology, i.e. what’s wrong, to thinking about how even the most stable of us can be happier and more fulfilled. I’ll add links tomorrow with some of the things I’ve been reading about this I added links to this, but for now, sleep!

It’s good for you!