Conventions of Grammar

The point of conflict between the traditional and the contemporary approach to grammar is the triumph of convention over nature. Current grammar theories seem to argue that grammar is strictly a matter of usage (convention). Since this is so, we need to examine why people use grammatical forms and of course, the only possible explanation is that they want power over others. Grammar is an elitist enterprise in which the establishment keeps outsiders outside.

While that is an obvious caricature, life on the college campus and university classroom has itself become a caricature, providing far too many proofs of the approach to life described above.

So far as I can tell, nobody has ever denied the conventionality of grammar. In other words, nobody has ever developed a theory of correct grammar that has not taken usage into consideration. But that leaves at least two critical questions open: one, is convention the ONLY determinate of correct grammar, and two, whose usage should be recognized as authoritative?

This latter point is especially important precisely because grammar is so conventional. A convention is an approach to a given activity that people agree to. The world of computer and internet technology is full of such conventions. As long as people agree to HTML codes or Java script it works. But if someone were to come along and declare that they don’t work, or worse, that they are tyrannical, then a problem would arise.

In the realm of grammar, this reaction seems to be taking place, led by Marxists and feminists, with the ground prepared by Utilitarians and other nominalists. The argument is that grammar is a white man’s mechanism to oppress women and minorities. Let us grant, for a moment, that white men use grammar to oppress women and minorities. Is the solution to do away with grammar? Is it to toss aside the conventions altogether?

The very impossibility of that option prevents radicals from pursuing it to that extreme. They smartly focus their attention of conventions that are especially worth fighting over, like sexist language.

But the impossibility also points to a second vital question: whether there is something more than convention in the structure of grammar; whether, indeed, the structure itself of grammar is ultimately relative, created by man the measure of all, or whether the structure of grammar arises from nature itself and is therefore something we are bound to submit to at our peril.

To put it another way, the tension in grammar arises from the conflict between convention and nature. Convention can be understood as another name for usage, though it’s a little more precise and expressive. Nature is the essence of the thing, the underlying order linked to reality.

Convention alone is radical relativism.

Nature alone is radical intellectualism – irresponsible and impersonal.

We all, everyday, are called upon to negotiate this tension and while we don’t usually do it from an informed position, we seem all to have positions and impulses on this matter. For example, the adolescent who adopts the language of his peers is willfully adopting a conventionalist mindset. He’s not about to submit to the requirements of the teacher, which clearly arise from the representatives of the establishment.

The teacher might also hold to a conventionalist position, in which case the only reason for teaching grammar is utility, which is another word for power. You should learn grammar so you can be more persuasive, gain more pleasure from your writing, get a good job, etc. But when the teacher holds to a conventionalist position, there is no compelling appeal to justice by which the student can be called to honor the instruction. It might be imprudent or immature or impractical not to learn grammar, but it can’t be seen as inherently destructive of his human faculties.

My sympathies lie with the student in that context, as they always lie with the victim of tyranny, no matter how mild.

But if the teacher or student were to hold to an essentialist position, then I would have to see the student as a fool in rebellion. No longer is he trying to shake himself free from an oppressor, now he is trying to rise above the restrictions of human nature.

Which of the two options a society opts for makes all the difference.


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