My stance on language's chicken and egg debate

During one of our staff meetings this week, I found myself discussing effective literacy pedagogy with one of my colleagues. Most of the discussion on my end was an internal dialogue because much of what I was listening to didn't exactly vibe with my views, and I didn't feel like complicating the interaction by offering my dissent. That and I was actually interested in what he was saying.

Anyhow, the discussion centered on students not being able to write a "complete" sentence. For him, not being able to write a complete sentence was very important because, well, if you can't put together a coherent idea within the boundaries of a sentence, how can you then string together multiple coherent sentences and communicate effectively? Simple logic, and it is very sound logic, and while I later argue against this I agree. Just not in degree of importance.

I disagree with the notion that communication requires a rigid grammar: a set of rules that must be followed in order for the communication to be effective and successful. Obviously, some basic rules need to be met, and it is certainly true that complete sentences are pretty basic. However, where is the line? What is most important? Is it absolutely necessary to concern our efforts with "fixing" a sentence that lacks a typical subject-verb-object (svo) arrangement if it is still readable? Especially when the quality of thought requires revision?

I fall into the whole language philosophy that asserts that meaning is constructed through organization of thought and that communication is effective so long as ideas follow a logical and interpretable path. Then once that is established we can focus on the sentence, punctual and word level to clean up the writing and make it clearer.

Thus my colleague's primary concern of laying bricks, so to speak, didn't exactly seem as important to me. To continue my metaphor, I believe in setting a foundation first -- with thought and ideas being that foundation. Obviously this is an example of the ongoing debate over whether language creates meaning or meaning creates language -- or what is the foundation? I subscribe to the latter and believe my colleague subscribes to the former.

Reasons I believe meaning creates language are evident in how people speak everyday. People can say "brb" or "lol" or any other sort of Internet speak and meaning is created. The grammar exists even if it isn't the "preferred," traditional grammar. Thus grammar shifts and is context dependent.

Furthermore, if you really think about it, the preferred grammar can be more confusing. For example, would you say "To whom did you speak this evening"? or "Who did you speak to"? The "preferred" is the former and, as I'm sure you would agree, you're more likely to confuse someone with that sentence than you are the latter. Besides, today's language is much more fragmented given how new technologies have changed how we communicate, and I would argue that complete sentences (at least in a super rigid construction) are closer to extinction than fragments, so why focus so heavily on "fixing" them? I believe our challenge as literacy teachers is to use the way people speak and think everyday and teach students how to use language effectively.

The relevance to my teaching is that many of my students (particularly my ELA kids) might not write the most eloquent sentences, but I believe they are learning to think and are becoming effective at creating and organizing thought through language.

The obvious problem with that is standardized testing doesn't exactly focus on or reward that approach. It does to an extent (if you read many of the CSAP rubrics it does focus first on quality of ideas and then the "nitty gritty"), but because testing still is still too focused on sentence-level meaning teachers are almost forced to teach it first and foremost. Worse yet, this sort of Testing dogma convinces teachers (like my colleague I believe) that good writing must have good sentences. Obviously, I don't agree. Good writing can have terrible sentences and bad writing can have terrific sentences.


This line of thinking always brings me back to one of my favorite essays: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. In it he discusses how people create and prefer a sort of super-yet-sloppy language that disguises and distorts thought. Through bad writing we convince others and ourselves of nonsense and hide it from everyone -- including ourselves.

One example Orwell discusses is the word "Utilize," which is a pet peeve word for me. Do we ever need to use that word? Is there ever a case where the word "use" isn't more appropriate? I've had this discussion with many people, and some will defend the word with a litany of examples, but I am never convinced. That word is only used to make someone pretend they are using a "bigger" word and, as a result, sound more intelligent. "Utilize" (as well as other absurd words) often disguises a flawed or sloppy logic -- or, simply, someone is trying to bullshit us. And (oops I started a sentence with "And") I think it is no coincidence that this word is a favorite among politicians and bureaucrats.

Like Orwell, I believe language is the instrument of thought, and when communicating it is the thought that matters first. Thus, when teaching, I try to show students how to think, make meaning and use the language effectively considering the audience. If students use fragments, the wrong tenses or subject verb agreements, I am not freaking out that they are not writing well. Obviously (to consider audience) those things matter because our society judges people not by their quality of thought and how well that thought is organized, but through a mastery of sentences and the accepted grammar. For that reason I believe sentence-level concerns are important -- just not that important.

I'm aware I'm dancing a fine line, but it is a very important line for me. I teach the English language arts because I want students to use and create language, not utilize language to please the "preferred" grammatical norm.


superior said...


Anonymous said...

Dude(er, Mr. Adams), you have no idea just how much I can relate to your having such an irritation with the word "utilize"! I had a friend who always (literally, every freaking time she could) would replace "use" with "utilize". Reading your article made me laugh and feel better about my now full-fledged hatred for that word and all of its pretentiousness.

Btw, I'm signed up for your summer class at ACC...see you then.