A Year From The Use and Misuse of English Grammar

We learn grammar when we learn to speak, we know grammar, we pause where we want, when we want, pulling words like fish from our Pond of Vocabulary and stringing them on the line, one after another, one to a hook, using commas instead of periods when we don’t want to be interrupted, YELLing when someone is so rude as to keep on talking when we are trying to interrupt – we fall silent, dashed, a period of rigour-tunge follows (our tongues rigged with rules), then we bounce awake, trim our sails, for we’re surrounded in the Bay of Prescription, the murky waters of communication, with boats of advice all bopping this way and that (there goes the “Do This,” firing across the bow of the “Don’t Do That”), the pond stormy on a storm swept night if there ever was one.

In Wendell Johnson’s “You Can’t Write Writing,” (The Use and Misuse of Language, 1962, S. I. Hayakawa, ed.), we learn that bad grammar, baby, ain’t our problem: “The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, ‘Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to?’ Mr. Darrow was contending…the effective use of the English language is more important than the ‘correct’ use of it, and that if you can speak English ‘correctly,’ but not effectively, it does not matter very much ‘who you talk it to’” (101).

This has implications for those who would aspire to teach writing, and Johnson continues, “The teacher of English appears to attempt to place the emphasis upon writing, rather than upon writing-about-something-for-someone. From this it follows quite inevitably that the student of English fails in large measure to learn the nature of the significance of clarity or precision and of organization in the written representation of facts” (103).

Grammar is the least of our worries, argues Johnson: “So long as the student’s primary anxieties are made to revolve around the task of learning to spell, punctuate, and observe the rules of syntax, he is not likely to become keenly conscious of the fact that when he writes he is, above all, communicating…his first obligation to his reader is not to be grammatically fashionable but to be clear and coherent” (103).

Hayakawa, in his introduction, has already explained his interest with regard to how people talk: “We are not worrying about the elegance of their pronunciation or the correctness of their grammar. Basically we are concerned with the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii). And, ultimately, for the reader interested in more than mere prescriptions on how to write, emphasis is placed “not only on what the speakers said, but even more importantly on their attitudes towards their own utterances” (vii).

Hayakawa sums up his concerns as follows: “What general semanticists mean by ‘language habits’ is the entire complex of (1) how we talk – whether our language is specific or general, descriptive or inferential or judgmental; and (2) our attitudes toward our own remarks – whether dogmatic or open-minded, rigid or flexible” (vii).

Whenever I hear some self-appointed cop of language (or worse, someone with the badge of a degree), attempting to arrest a speaker’s tongue, putting it in the handcuffs of some prescriptive rule, I think about Hayakawa’s The Use and Misuse of Language.

But, unforlorn, I’m inclined toward and recline with an infuzen of John Cage, who sums the problem up nicely in his A Year From Monday (1969), which begins with “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965

        I.               Continue; I’ll discover where you

                            sweat  (Kierkegaard).            We are getting

rid of ownership, substituting use.

Beginning with ideas.            Which ones can we

take?            Which ones can we give?

Disappearance of power politics.            Non-



“You Can’t Write Writing”
Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major
How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders


  1. Geannie Newell says:

    Nice piece Joe, but Professor Hughes would be marking your paper down (as she currently is mine) for the use of contractions. As she reminds me “you can get away with it when you are speaking, but not when you are writing”. Have a peaceful Memorial Day.


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Hey, Geannie! Srry to hr abt yr cntrctn woes! Yes, but just so, why shouldn’t we write like we talk? But I suppose the issue of contractions is really about standard and non-standard English and formal and informal speaking and writing and the preference of some for what’s perceived to be standard and formal. But Johnson is using a contraction in his very title. It comes down (it seems, to Johnson, and I’m inclined to agree) to writing effectively rather than to sacrifice clarity for the sake of prescriptive rules which like certain rituals lose meaning the further they get from their origins (this idea of ritual removed from its place of origin resulting in a loss of meaning comes from Gary Snyder’s “Earth House Hold” ala Robert Creeley). But maybe avoiding contractions does encourage clarity. There’s a wide spectrum between writing that panders to the tastes of its audience and writing that satisfies the expectations of its audience. If the audience wants no contractions, give them no contractions. But I amn’t (amn’t for am not, a perfectly good contraction you’ll find in the OED that conforms to the “rules” of contracting) inclined (more and more as I go on) in the blog to follow academic prescriptions. I’m more inclined these days to look for naturopathic cures. … A peaceful Memorial Day to you too. Hope all’s well. Thanks for checking in! Joe


      1. Geannie Newell says:

        I took note of the fact that Johnson used a contraction in his title and that you (correctly) quoted using contractions. I do write the way I speak (which includes using contractions), but have found myself double and triple checking papers submitted to Professor Hughes to correct them to her standards.


        1. Joe Linker says:

          It comes down to a question of style, and style rules or guidelines are not universal, and what’s correct or incorrect for one style may not be for a different style.


  2. dan hennessy says:

    Amazing analysis !


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Sister Agony had them diagramming sentences. Diagramming and casting out 9’s. Rulers and red pens and red knuckles and a big red face framed by starched white winged buttresses – it’s all about creating the marginal man.


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