Updated: Oct 31, 2020
The Breakdown of Language and Importance of Grammar
Please eat, Grandma.
Please eat Grandma.
In the first sentence, Grandma is commanded to eat. In the second sentence, someone is commanded to engage in cannibalism and eat Grandma. Commas make a BIG difference, proving that grammar can save lives! Grammar can also signal the strength or weakness of a society.
The current ubiquitous calls for tearing down the “establishment” are unfortunately not limited to historic monuments and government departments: we are also experiencing a pervasive, nearly mainstream movement calling for the teardown of even basic, well-established communication. Whereas dangling modifiers were once the most offensive grammatical error, today rules of basic language are under attack. This corrosive attack is more than just about pronoun preferences . . . it’s about grammatical law, order, and free speech.
The Breakdown of Language . . .
A high school English teacher once told one of us, “The breakdown of language leads to the breakdown of society.”
Unfortunately, grammar and language are under assault in America, and we’re not just talking about four-letter words. Consider a few examples:
We are all familiar with the ever-increasing deterioration of the English language through the ubiquity of informal emails as well as text and chat conversation: “u” has replaced “you,” “2” has replaced “to,” and you are no doubt familiar with dozens more examples. Recent findings have suggested that schoolchildren in the 1960s and 1970s were far more literate than children of today, who struggle mightily with spelling, grammar, and essay writing.
Perhaps only a grammar “nerd” like I am gets frustrated by the improper use of “they” in a sentence such as “Neither Sally nor Katie had tied their shoes.” (The correct pronoun is her!) But the problem has skyrocketed to a level not even contemplated by strict grammarians, to the point at which the singular “they” was Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Year” in 2019. As of last year, most literary style guides, including the Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style, now accept the usage of the singular they. This change is not driven by language evolution, but by Leftist gender sensitivity. Students as young as preschool are now being taught that “they” is a third person singular pronoun, along with “he,” “she,” and “it,” based solely on a person’s gender preferences.
And it’s not just “they”: at least thirty additional pronouns have been introduced, from “fae” to “xyr” to “perself.” Are you confused yet? Well, hold onto your hats, boys and girls: Leftist organizations have declared the third Wednesday in October as "International Pronouns Day," where everyone is to use the pronouns "they," "their," and "them" when referring to individuals in order to neutralize (or, neuter?) gender. Shockingly, even "mainstream" outlets such as Good Morning America are promoting their agenda. No wonder many teachers are now encouraged not to say “Good morning, boys and girls,” because the phrase is considered to perpetuate gender stereotypes.
The honorific “Mx.” has been created for individuals who consider their gender to be non-binary, so they do not have to use “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.” (Check out this excellent satirical piece, which among other things claims, “Doctor is clearly thought of as a masculine term, and yet women are subjected forcibly to it. We should distinguish between Doctoro, Doctora, and Doctx . . . .”)
The word ”Latinx” was created to be a “gender-neutral” term for “Latino” or “Latina”—even though only 25% of Hispanics are even familiar with the term, and only a mere 3% of Hispanics use the term! Such a statistic begs the question: for whom are these changes occurring, if the relevant population is not even aware of the existence of the term? (And forget concerns about machismo; just throw away the means by which to explain the advancement of Latin women in their own language.)
The word “Black” (African-American, long considered the preferred term, is now out of vogue) is now capitalized, according to AP style, but the word “white,” when referring to race, is not. (Note, also, how the article bends over backward to explain its faulty logic, while yet acknowledging that it could change at any time.)
Capitalization is even being discouraged in some schools. The Superintendent of a network of public charter schools in New York City writes, “I've explained to my students that I spell my name "rob"—with a lowercase R—because, as an educator, I choose to reimagine the recommended relationship between capitalization and proper nouns because all constructed knowledge can be deconstructed.”
Given the state of these changes—where an education leader declares that even capitalization is up for grabs—we are confident the aforementioned high school English teacher, herself a liberal, would cringe if she were still alive.
Many of these changes are related to the race and gender reconstructions being imposed by self-proclaimed woke revolutionaries. Beyond the grammar-related consequences, the ironic and hypocritical conformity that is being demanded by many on the Left makes those who disagree feel cowed into silence. To the contrary, we should not be ashamed to be grammarians who understand the beauty and rules and language we can all understand.
. . . and Why Grammar Is Important
Writing about why grammar is important to me is as obvious—and as complex—as writing about why I love my children.
As I learned grammar as a young teenager through diagramming sentences and memorizing rules, I felt an intellectual passion like I had never before. The world clicked into place for me. I had entreé into the intellectual adult world because of my understanding of how our language fit together. I never had to be intimidated to communicate with anyone, as I knew how to speak and how to write . . . qualities that have served me extremely well in every relationship I’ve had since, both professional and personal.
As stated in a report by the National Council of Teachers of English, "Grammar is important because it is the language that makes it possible for us to talk about language. Grammar names the types of words and word groups that make up sentences not only in English but in any language. As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children—we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences—that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity." Even the New York Times has published an article stating that “a thinking citizen deserves the basic skills required to make sense through language, and to parse the sense and nonsense of others.”
Understanding grammar, and having a commonly understood language that builds on the traditions of those who came before us, is a gift that everyone—regardless of race or class—needs. Even ebonics, once declared by the Oakland Unified School District as the official language of African-Americans and encouraged to be taught in schools, fell quickly out of favor, including by numerous African-Americans, who in fact want their kids to learn the rules of grammar themselves. Grammar is not a tool of the oppressor, but it is an equalizing force, able to be learned by anyone, that can empower and uplift.
While some may argue that language evolves over time (the same people, of course, who argue that the Constitution should evolve over time), small changes do not negate the need for a structure of understanding. The traditional rules of grammar are critical both to individual communication and to a cohesive society. To prevent the breakdown of society, as that English teacher warned, we all must teach and protect our beautiful rules of grammar.
So, let’s forget the phrase “Grammar Queen,” as we live in a democratic republic, not a monarchy! Let’s teach our kids to be “Grammar Presidents,” teaching them to be proud of learning and mastering something beautifully intentional: our language, and all its rules.
If you’d like some great resources on grammar for kids, check out the following excellent books from Lynne Truss, who entranced us all with her delightful Eats, Shoots & Leaves:
Want to test your kid's -- and your -- grammar skills?
A.J. Grey is a lawyer, mother, and leader in several civic organizations. Her favorite American value is equality, of people and of opportunity.