November 2010 Archives

The Etiquette of Grammar Correction

|

A debate linguists are involved with a lot is how and when to correct grammar, especially in student work.

Traditional practice dictates that non-standard grammar should always be corrected, but linguists and others have disagreed that constant correction is necessary. So do poor spellers, and those actually speaking non-standard forms.

Non Standard Speaker in Math Class

Take a child in math class who says something like "That don't make no sense" (note double negative). Should we take the time to address the double negative issue before we address the underlying problem that the student may be having with improper fractions?

Again, the traditional answer may be yes because the question is "unclear", but if we're honest, the chances are that Standard English speakers actually understand the double negative just fine (if we didn't, we would assume that "I Can't get no Satisfaction" means Mick Jagger is 100% satisfied). FWIW - If the teacher hadn't really understood, the response would likely have been "Huh?" or "Can you repeat that?"

Another rationale might be that the student's standard English grammar is being reinforced by being corrected. I suspect that what happens is that the student is annoyed that the teacher is addressing the grammar question and NOT the math question. In this scenario, any child caught using the double negative will have to go through an additional process of hearing a lecture on "correct" negatives before his or her original question can be addressed. What a pain. And possibly discouraging more questions from that student in the long run.

Let's remember that double negative speakers are not using that contstruction to annoy teachers, but because that was the grammar they acquired in their home environment. Their parents aren't deliberately teaching it either, especially since children tend to pay more attention to what their playmates are saying rather than adults (this is one reason children of immigrant parents can speak perfect English). At this point, the double negative IS the native construction and the standard English negative is a bit like a second language.

Another Time Not to Correct

If the scenario above is not really convincing, consider this quote from the documentary Amy's Story about a woman killed by her abusive husband. As the detective recounts, Amy did go to the police at least one time:

[Amy] went and outlined the history of what had been happening. She recounted him pulling the baby out of her arms, him choking her, him breaking things in the house, [him] threatening to burn the house down, [him] threatening to kill her.

Wow - did you notice the use of non-standard "him choking her" instead of the more standard "his choking her"...or were you horrified at what this man was doing to his wife? I sincerely hope it was the latter. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if a standard or not-so-standard construction was used, if we can understand what is being said.

When to Correct

In case you were wondering, I am not against correction, especially being proofed. I really do want my resume to be perfectly Standard as well as most promotional materials and academic articles. You will also never hear a linguistics presentation given in Ebonics/AAVE (even if the topic IS AAVE). Some social norms are just too strong to challenge.

When the discourse is more spontaneous or conversational though, I think the Standard English noose can and should be loosened. Would Bob Marley have said as much to us if he had been forced to correct his Jamaican English to Standard English all the time?