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What Do Descriptivists Teach Their Children?

A commenter asks a good question: "What do anti-prescriptivists tell their own children?"

My children are 2 and 3, and I'm told that at those ages it's more effective just to speak around your children the way you want them to speak, rather than setting rules for them. But I've certainly thought about what I ought to tell my children eventually; here are a few thoughts, with the understanding that "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

1. Be age-appropriate. A nuanced rule that may work for an older teenager might not work well for a younger child.

2. Teach children to speak and write in ways that will serve them well. My goal isn't to make sure that my child follows the technical rules of grammar. My goal is to make sure that he can speak and write in ways that are clear, that make him look educated, and that will make him seem pleasant and careful rather than pompous and offputting.

There's nothing wrong with the word "ain't," which has been used for centuries, and which I can find no abstract logical reason for condemning. It's just that today using it will lead quite a few people to think the less of you -- much more so than splitting infinitives would, for instance -- and the safe bet is to avoid it, except in fairly clearly jocular contexts. Likewise, there are lots of sesquipedalian words that aren't "wrong," but that one generally shouldn't use (though one should know in case others use them).

3. Teach older children to be skeptical of language myths. I plan to teach my children to be skeptical generally. But language is one area where I've come across especially many enduring myths, including myths -- about grammar, usage, etymology, and more. Children should learn that, so that they can develop their skepticism, and so that they can better learn what the actual rules are (and of course there are rules, just rules that are dictated by actual usage).

4. Explain to older children that English is a grown order, not a made order. This is itself an interesting and useful observation, but it may also help them think about how other things (such as markets) are largely grown orders.

5. Try to get my children to be interested in -- even fascinated by -- the language. I get a lot of pleasure out of thinking, reading, and talking about language, and I hope they will, too. And I think that thinking and caring about language will make one a more knowledgeable, careful, and effective user of the language.

6. Teach children not to correct others' grammar and usage, except in certain contexts and manners in which such correction is socially acceptable. As I noted before, that's both a good way of avoiding social friction, and a good way of avoiding the embarrassment of finding that the speaker you're correcting was actually quite right, and that your correction was incorrect.

jimbino (mail):
1. Be age-appropriate--

but be sure not to leave a beautiful mind of whatever age unchallenged. I have met multilingual Amerikans and Germans who believed their young children capable of learning only one language at a time. Hogwash! There are numerous adults who have benefited by growing up in a bi- or tri-lingual environment. What's sad is to meet so many second-generation immigrant Amerikans who can't speak their parent's language as well as I can. Kids should start learning many languages, especially in the first six months of life, after which they might never gain the ability to pronounce certain consonants and vowels in Japanese or Arabic, for example.

2. Teach children to speak and write in ways that will serve them well.

Right, but technical rules of grammar are essential in artificial languages like Java and in any writing of yours that may be subjected to machine translation, because machines aren't as forgiving of bad grammar as guys in the ghetto. Some folks find superior wordsmiths like Churchill, WF Buckley, George Will and Christopher Hitchens pompous and offputting; I find them delightful. It's the pope who's pompous and offputting in whichever of the 10 languages he speaks.

3. Teach older children to be skeptical of language myths. I plan to teach my children to be skeptical generally.

Good. Even better would be for you to offer them a prize of a dollar every time they caught you abusing the subjunctive mood ("She said that as if it was…") , the transitive verb ("The program has finished executing.") or "due to," or say "amount of data," "Absolutely!" or "The problem is is that…" or pronounce "gigabyte" or "gigahertz" with a hard 'g.'

4. Explain to older children that English is a grown order, not a made order.

They will figure that out on their own. What they might not appreciate is the fact that language serves more than one purpose. The obvious one is to communicate meaning, but another is to communicate your maturity, your social class or your erudition. People judge you by the words you use!

5. Try to get my children to be interested in -- even fascinated by -- the language.

Yes, and encourage them to master several languages!

6. Teach children not to correct others' grammar and usage, except in certain contexts and manners in which such correction is socially acceptable.

My mammy taught me to stick up for what's right. Of course I wouldn't correct anyone just for my entertainment, but I do correct all of my foreign friends who are trying to learn English and I ask them to correct my errors in their languages. It is especially important to correct the grammar of ivory-tower professors because of their exposure and influence on others. A professor who can't take it needs to find another job.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out to children that they can avoid a lot of boredom in life by being captious and abrasive and by adhering to the rule, "If you can't say something disagreeable, don't say anything at all." They would be well advised to focus a conversation on things like politics and religion. I can't imagine what a lost opportunity it would be to meet one of my heroes, such as Einstein or Luther, and talk to him only about his children!
7.23.2007 9:00pm
Anonymo the Anonymous:
Language myths: A good example is when someone corrects "octopuses" to "octopi". Unnecessary pedantry is bad enough, particularly when the alleged error didn't cause any ambiguity, logical contradiction or awkwardness; it's worse when the pedant fails to realize that "octopus" is not of Latin origin. It's from Greek, so if we wanted to be jerks we'd say "octopodes", but I still don't see why people speaking English want to comform to the plural-forming rules of dead languages (ancient Greek is dead, I'm not writing a very much alive European country and people out of existence).

Another myth worth refuting is the one where spelling words with gratuitous "k"s constitutes revolutionary insight.
7.23.2007 9:24pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
I would guess that Prof. Volokh is speaking more about the way he thinks he should feel than about the way he actually feels. I doubt that he is as liberal and nonjudgmental as he wishes to be.

For example:
"There's nothing wrong with the word "ain't," which has been used for centuries, and which I can find no abstract logical reason for condemning. It's just that today using it will lead quite a few people to think the less of you."
I strongly suspect that in his heart of hearts, he is one of those "quite a few people". I know that I am, and so (I believe) are most of the people I know who would describe themselves as descriptivists.
7.23.2007 9:29pm
JZB:
The problem with saying "ain't" is, of course, that your mother will faint and your father will fall in a bucket of paint.
7.23.2007 9:42pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
1. Be age-appropriate. A nuanced rule that may work for an older teenager might not work well for a younger child.

What is age appropriate when it comes to language? Young kids are great at nuanced rules about languages.

My father is pedantic about language. (He has just gotten out of the hospital after a stay of several weeks, and his biggest complaint was that none of the staff used adverbs or knew the difference between "lay" and "lie".) That early training helped my SATs and such, but other than letting me feel superior to everybody else I'm not sure how much good getting in to Harvard actually did for me. (Even without Harvard one can achieve that with a higher language register.)

My wife (who understood better than most just how short life is, and who taught me to stop worryng about these things and lighten up) used to use grammar that hurt my ears ("I would have went") and my kids haven't picked up all the rules they ought to have, but it did my heart good to hear my 10-year-old make a disparaging remark about the IRS in which he used the plural "scrota".
7.23.2007 9:51pm
Guest27:
A context where teaching Chomsky would be appropriate.
7.23.2007 10:35pm
Sameer Parekh (mail) (www):
Too much skepticism about language rules may well get your children in trouble when they run into prescriptivist grammar teachers! Add to your list, "teach them when it is appropriate to humor authority figures"
7.24.2007 12:23am
MartinEd (mail):
"Teach children not to correct others' grammar and usage,..."

Alas, my grand daughter and her parents live in San Francisco. There, it is appropriate for children and anyone to correct what they view as politically incorrect verbiage.
They regularly ban fine English words and distort the meaning of others.
If you want to warp the minds of today's children so you can control them when they are grown, constantly change their language 'til they reach the point where they have no original thought but think and speak only after having gaged whether their words will offend others.
I used the word "oriental" and was told that it is no longer acceptable.The acceptable words and the offensive words associated with homosexuals change regularly.
7.24.2007 1:34pm