"A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used."
~Oliver Wendell Holmes
I've taken to starting almost every writing or literature class I teach, whether it's remedial or advanced, with a brief lecture about the basic building blocks of both: words. It goes something like this: Our spoken vocabulary is usually limited to about 200 words, which means that many of them do double, triple or even quadruple duty. The words "stuff," "things," and the unholy trinity of "dat, dese, and dose" (not to mention "dem") stand in for much more precise nouns and verbs. The possible vocabulary residing in the OED is something like half a million words, one of the largest wordhoards (thank you, Old English!) in the world. Without a decent vocabulary, our efforts to express ourselves are not very different from lying in the crib, screaming and flailing our limbs.
Because many of my students are first or second generation Americans (and the ones that aren't should be reminded we're nearly all immigrants) I work in the Eddy Peters quote on the icon above, which actually goes like this: "Not only does the English language borrow words from other languages, it sometimes chases them down dark alleys, hits them over the head and goes through their pockets." I end by sharing my favorite words with them and why I love them, and every class I teach from then on has at least two or three new vocabulary words associated with it, some the jargon of criticism, some not.
My most recent remedial class ate this up and immediately started to demand vocabulary lists. They ran out and bought dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri?) and they shout out, "what's that mean?" when I use a word they don't know. I luff them. They got exactly what I mean.
One of the other subversive "rules" I offer them is that grammar doesn't really matter. They're not dumb; they've seen professional writers use fragments and one-sentence paragraphs, split infinitives, and decline to use "whom" when they should. How come they can get away with it and we can't? they whine. Not fair! And they're right. The difference, I tell them, is that you have to learn the rules to be allowed to break them. There's a fine line between breaking grammatical rules for a purpose and just looking like an maroon.
Or is there?
In my earlier days of teaching and editing, I would have said "oh hell yes!" Now, I'm not so sure. If the primary purpose of language is to communicate, those 200 words actually do a pretty good job, with or without "correct" grammar, thanks to our ability to decipher meaning from context and body language. "Yo, gimme one a them," will generally get us what we want with a little pointing. Immigrants and tourists prove that every day. Those big vocabularies and perfect grammar only really come into play when we want to express complex, precise ideas. Even then, language often fails miserably because (and nobody ever admits this) we all have our own personal definitions of words, nuanced definitions that aren't necessarily communally agreed-upon or sanctioned by the dictionary. That's what Holmes is saying in the quote I started this post with. (And wow, look at the grammatical errors in that sentence: "quote" instead of "quotation"; sentence ending in a preposition. And yet, I'm sure you understood what I said, right?)
I have, in fact, become a Descriptivist, rather than a Prescriptivist, according to Jack Lynch, in The Lexicographer's Dilemma. I'm more interested in how language functions and changes in the real world than in enforcing the arbitrary rules we made up to govern it. This may seem like a bad stance for a teacher of basic writing skills to take, but I'm just as interested in fostering the creative use of language and its continuing development as I am in honing my students' skills, because without that sense of playfulness about language, they're never going to either enjoy or become truly proficient in English, spoken or written.
In that spirit, I give you Stephen Fry's diatribe about the Prescriptivists, in kinetic typography: