Breaking Rules

One of my favorite novels is John Barth’s The End of The Road. In that novel Jake Horner — who suffers from “cosmopsis,” the inability to choose among alternatives — finds himself teaching English grammar at a Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. At one point a recalcitrant student in one of his classes objects to grammar rules and insists that it’s all hokum. A person can say anything he or she wants and it really doesn’t matter how you say it. This leads to a fascinating confrontation between the student and his teacher.

Jake engages the student in a dialogue in which he notes that what separates us from “savages” are the rules we follow, including grammar rules. “. . .once a set of rules for etiquette or grammar is established and generally accepted as the norm — meaning the ideal, not the average — then one is free to break them only if he is willing to be generally regarded as a savage or an illiterate.. . .You are free to break the rules, but not if you’re after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then the only way to get ‘free’ of the rules is to master them so thoroughly that they’re second nature to you.. . .Who’s more free in America?. . . The man who rebels against all the laws or the man who follows them so automatically that he never even has to think about them?”

(Bill Watterson put the point somewhat differently in his “Calvin and Hobbes” Comic:)

Now despite the fact that we are now politically correct and eschew such terms as “savages,” there is a modicum of truth in Jake’s comments to his student. Our ability to use language has deteriorated to an astonishing degree in the past 50 years. In tests during the late 1950’s there was concern over the reduced vocabulary of supposedly “educated” students from some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Since that time, estimates reveal that vocabulary has fallen off by 72% among the students at those same schools. Much of this is due to the fact that foreign languages (especially Latin) are no longer taught to all college bound students. But there are also the related facts of excessive TV watching, increased use of electronic devices, and the decreasing number of books being read.

I blogged in March about the increasing tendency of students to tweet one another rather
than correspond with one another in complete sentences. English teachers around the country have complained in increasing numbers about the growing inability of their students to write a complete sentence. As I said in March, referring to an incident involving Rush Limbaugh and his chastisement of a young woman who testified before Congress about the use of contraceptives:

“The recent debacle surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s trashing of a young woman for having the gall to approach Democratic members of a Congressional committee and suggest that health insurance plans should fund contraceptives to help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies is well documented. Less well documented is actress Patricia Heaton’s leaping to Limbaugh’s side in lashing out at the young law student. Both have apologized. While Heaton’s twitter-trashing was fairly intelligible, her apology was more typical, buried as it is in the usual twitterese:

‘re @SandraFluke Mea culpa Sandra! Wasn’t being respectful 2 u re my tweets as I hope people wd b w/me. Don’t like you being dissed -so sorry.'”

In a word, what we have here is a new language that may or may not express complete thoughts. We must bear in mind that our thinking depends on our ability to use words, whether we like it or not. And as our inability to use words increases along with our tendency to replace words with grunts, gestures, sentence fragments, and spacers such as “like,” and “you know” we must grudgingly admit that we are perhaps at the dawn of a new age of barbarism, if not savagery.

The solution, of course, is for parents to grab their kids from in front of the TV and spend more time with them telling them stories, reading to them and having them make up stories themselves. They should also resist the movement toward more electronic devices in the schools — especially in the early grades. The more the kids use language and hear others around them using it correctly the more likely that they will be better able to express themselves and order their thoughts as they grow older. That, it seems to me, is rather important.