The Folly of Taught Grammar

I DO not believe in the teaching of grammar. I have taught grammar myself until I have taught away all my faith in the expediency and rationality of teaching it. The grammar that avails is the grammar that is untaught. Language is self-revelation, — a way that a man takes to let the world know, first of all, his needs and purposes, and secondly, his stock, breeding, temperament, spirit. If every man’s speech were a perfect image of himself, language would be perfect, and there would be as many grades and types of language as there are grades and types of mind and culture. The worst English is right, if it be significant, and the best English is wrong, if it be inexpressive.

Grammar is of no worth except when, like Mr. Casaubon’s semicolons and parentheses, it has worked itself into the blood. You cannot talk grammar to any purpose unless you think and feel grammar. A very small minority of the English-speaking world have acquired a sense for what is precise, and a feeling for what is elegant, in language. Grammar is all very well, — for those persons. But the great majority of speakers are insensible to these delicacies. For them bad grammar is the righteous thing. “Them ain’t ” in the mouth of the bumpkin is as beautiful and appropriate as “they are ” in the mouth of the gentleman; and the adoption of the classic form by the boor would be as lamentable a mistake as the acceptance of the vulgarism by the scholar.

Grammar is felicitous when it is expressive, and when it is the solecism that is expressive, the solecism becomes felicitous. All language which grows out of a man’s instinct, or the habit which is the instinct of his class, is beautiful, interesting, wholesome, and spirited. This is true, in a great degree, not merely of the choice dialects, the vigorous and tender Scotch, the musical and sensitive patois of southern Europe and America, but even of the blank, shapeless, groping speech which reflects with perfect aptness the phlegm and dullness of the user. It is beautiful, as in Milton such phrases as the “swilled insolence of such late wassailers ” or “the swinked hedger at his supper sat ” are beautiful; because they are precisely and vigorously expressive.

Everybody talks well when he talks in the way he likes, the way he can’t help, the way he never thinks of: the rest is effort and pretense. The man who says “trousers ” because he likes to say it, and the man who says “pants ” because he likes to say it, are both good fellows with whom a frank soul could fraternize; but the man who says “trousers ” when he wants to say “pants ” is a craven and a truckler, equally hateful to honest culture and wholesome ignorance. He belongs in the same sordid category with the man who wears tight shoes and high collars that are a torment to the flesh, who eats olives that he does n’t relish and drinks uncongenial clarets, in imitation of his genteel neighbor in the brown-stone front.

The repression of nature is a misfortune, even when it is a duty ; but when it is uncalled for, it is the unpardonable sin. Society in the political sense could not exist if all or most of us did not agree to put a muzzle on our greedy and bloody instincts; and society in the polite sense would be impossible if we did not curb our egotism and petulance. In these cases a great good is bought at a high price; but no such motive can be invoked in behalf of that particular suppression of nature involved in the substitution of acquired for instinctive speech. Bad grammar is unobserved by many persons, is highly diverting to others, is interesting and significant to every catholic mind, and hurts nobody except the victim of a diseased sensibility, — itself the result in great part of the very teaching which I deprecate. As long as ignorant speech is manly and uncompromising, it neither pains itself nor injures its neighbor: it is only when it becomes timid and compunctious, when it quakes under the shadow of the ferule, all its faults vulgarized by its shame and its very accuracies cheapened by constraint, that it excites the observer’s scorn and pity.

The universal vogue of correct English would be little short of a calamity. The doubter has only to imagine the effect on the animation and interest of life, if we should wake up some morning to find every one saying “I shall ” and “I will ” in their proper places, the newsboy purged of slang, the racy brogues dislodged from the street car and the street corner, the hired man pronouncing according to Webster, and the two-year-olds lisping — I beg their pardon, they would no longer lisp, — uttering their thoughts — in phrases conformable to Lindley Murray, Dr. Murray, and the “King’s English.”

Every one knows that human nature changes, and I have not the slightest quarrel with those ameliorations of a man’s speech which are the result of a quickened perception or an improved taste. The communication of insight is as lawful in the field of language as in any other, and I do not oppose any teaching that confines itself to this, provided always that it is insight, not superstition or mechanism, that is communicated. Teach a man to like your way of speech, and the practice of it is no longer a contradiction of his nature. But every practical teacher knows how few are the persons and the usages with respect to which a conversion of this kind is achieved or achievable. The rules are received — or ignored — as oracles, and are obeyed — or disobeyed — as edicts.

Let no one be afraid that the so-called “good ” English will perish, if it is no longer taught. What sustains “good English ” is not teaching, but the fact that a certain number of people are born every year to whom some sort of approximation to precise and elegant speech is natural and congenial. As long as these people continue to be born, the finer English is indestructible. When the elect perish, “good ” English will die and ought to die, because there will be nothing left in human nature of which it is the proper mouthpiece. Its champions must be reared in its own household; there is no hope in the hirelings, the condottieri, whom the bribe of vanity or social advancement has impelled to offer their mercenary and heartless service to its cause. The reply of the English tongue to its self-appointed conservators and benefactors should be that of the French merchants to the ministry that inquired In what way it could help them: “Laissez faire.” If the race will take care of itself, the language will follow its example.