Is English going to the dogs? Part 1

We make lots of judgments about the ways in which people use English, don’t we? Isn’t it, one way or another, part of our job as English teachers to do this? We may suggest that we are well placed to make such judgments; after all, we went to university, attained a degree or degrees, and spent further time training to be teachers. It seems we have a strong, if hardly irrefutable, case.

English teachers are not, of course, the sole arbiters of judgment. Many or most people have views – sometimes dogmatic ones – on language use. And, since using language is an essentially human act, it is both reasonable and unsurprising that people should hold an opinion or two.

This page – the first of two - is about the views people hold on the English language, although teachers may like to extend their purview to other languages too. The activities, in a sense, ask students to consider their own views on English and the views of others. Fundamentally, the activities ask students to critically consider the recurrent lament that the English language is, you know, going to the dogs.

The essential question: Is English going to the dogs?

N.B. Teachers should review this video prior to using it in class. Some teachers may determine that its use is inappropriate.

The following video segment is from the HBO television series, The Wire. Watch it now. Does it suggest that English is ‘going to the dogs’? Motivate your response. 

Introductory plenary

Ask students to consider the following question:

What kinds of judgment do people make about the quality of English?

Students can pair and share their ideas, or work in small groups initially, providing feedback to the whole class. Possibly students may find this question initially confusing, and teachers may need to provide assistance. Potential answers to this question could be framed in terms of correct/incorrect usage; appropriate/inappropriate usage; relative usefulness; aesthetic judgments of beauty and ugliness; socially acceptable language; offensive language; and controversial language.

Does grammar matter?

Traditional English grammars emerged around the middle of the 18th century, and developed further in the 19th century. These grammars were prescriptivist (and, more often, proscriptivist) rather than descriptivist. That is, traditional grammars established patterns of correct, proper use. Such traditional grammars insisted that only certain kinds of formal and ‘elevated’ English was worthy of study; informal usages were not deemed worth studying and were ignored. Traditional English grammar was based on Latin grammar, where the rules of Latin grammar were established, in many instances, by the work of 19th century German scholars. The teaching of traditional grammar began to fall out of favour in the 1960s. Some suggest that this demise was influenced by a generally ‘progressive’ zeitgeist in the 1960s. Others claim that the change had nothing to do with being progressive. Rather, it was claimed that traditional grammar was nonsense, and a dreadful waste of time.

Teachers can survey their class:

How, and to what extent, have students been taught English grammar? To what degree do students find their understanding useful?

Below, are some questions taken from the 1899 London Matriculation examination for senior pupils. Ask students to (try to!) answer the questions. When they have done so, discuss as a class whether the knowledge required to pass this exam can be said to be useful. Does the fact that most contemporary students, and possibly many teachers, struggle with the questions provide evidence that English is, in fact, going to the dogs? Alternatively, does the examination simply test useless knowledge that has limited practical application for everyday life?

  • What is meant by “defective verbs”? Discuss the conjugation of any three.
  • Derive and explain:- Matriculate, parliament, isle, alderman, mayor, cricket; and mention some derivatives from and some cognates with these words.
  • Classify adverbs, according to their origin and formation, with instances.
  • How are (i) infinitives, and (ii) participles distinguished from the other parts of verbs? Write down and discuss six sentences illustrating the various uses of (i) the Infinitive and (ii) the Present Participle.
  • “To make a revolution every day is the nature of the sun, because of that necessary course which God has ordained it, from which it cannot swerve but by a faculty from that voice which first did give it motion.” (i) Analyse this sentence; (ii) underline the words of Latin origin.

Things your English teacher told you...

Many years ago, much younger, and certainly less cantankerous, I was teaching an IB English class. I was working with a bright and industrious young man, and we were considering his writing. At some point, I suggested he might rework his syntax, make one sentence two, and begin the second sentence with ‘And’. He baulked, before seriously chastising me. Under no circumstance should you begin a sentence with a conjunction. “But…” I tried to protest. It was no use. You must never begin a sentence with a conjunction. The student’s middle school English teacher had told him this. Drilled it. Reinforced it. That was that…

In 1986, the BBC Radio 4 series English Now asked listeners to send in a list of three points of grammatical usage they most disliked. Many listeners, the majority over 50, responded, often using apocalyptic metaphors to, as it were, vent their spleens. Listeners were also asked to send in three usages they liked. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the ‘usages disliked’ postbag * was considerably larger than the ‘usages liked’ postbag. Beginning sentences with a conjunction failed to make the top ten of dislikes. However, the following (see below) did.

Present the list to students and ask them to comment on some of the most frequent complaints from BBC Radio 4 listeners.

Ask students to comment on each complaint – what views, if any, do students hold? Do they agree, disagree, or it it, rather, a case of 'whatever'?

Then, ask students to comment on any ‘grammatical rule’ that they think is important. Who has taught them this rule – teachers; parents; grandparents; other adults; someone else? Also, ask students if they can explain the reason that underpins the grammatical rule. As a class, reflect on what is said: Where do grammatical rules come from, and do they seem to make sense?

* The word choice is entirely deliberate, reflecting the pre-email era of the survey.

  • Split infinitives (e.g. to boldly go) should not be used.
  • Only should be next to the word to which it relates. People should not say I only saw David when they mean I saw only David.
  • A sentence should not end with a preposition. We should say That was the woman to whom I gave the money, not That was the woman that I gave the money to.
  • Whom should be used, not who, in such sentences as That is the man whom you saw. The pronoun is the object of the verb saw, and should be in the objective case.
  • Double negatives should be avoided, as in They haven’t done nothing.

An interjection of Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

Ask students the following:

What do we mean when we say that language is correct, or incorrect? For example, if a student writes literarture rather than literature in their essay, have they made a mistake? Why is it a mistake? If a student writes literarture in their English essay, and argues that 2 + 2 = 7 in a Mathematics lesson, are these mistakes of the same kind, or are they different kinds of mistake?

Appeals to Logic

Handbook writers of prescriptive grammars tend to treat the English language as if it has, or ought to have, the precision of a logical proposition.

Show students the following example (below) from Angela Burt’s 2004 book, Quick Solutions to Common Errors in English, in which she discusses the double negative, introduced above. Discuss her contention. How compelling do students find her argument to be?

The effect of two negatives is to cancel each other out. This is sometimes done deliberately and can be effective:

I am not ungenerous. (= I am very generous.)

He is not unintelligent. (= He is quite intelligent.)

Frequently, however, it is not intentional and the writer ends up saying the opposite of what is meant:

I haven’t had no tea. (= I have had tea.)

You don’t know nothing. (= You know something)

(Burt, 2004, p.73)

How compelling did students find Burt’s arguments? Some linguists regard multiple negations as having an intensifying function – a pattern you will find, for example, in the English of Chaucer. Watch Pink Floyd perform ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. It’s a great song! In the lyrics, does the line ‘we don’t need no education’ mean ‘we need education’?  Ask students. How do they know?

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.