Rule of Thumb

Nathaniel Hawthorne

I’m engaged with a lot of rules these days.

I’m teaching a linguistics course this term and, in this first week of class, my graduate students are mostly concerned with correct English. They write about how they want to be right and sound like they know what they are doing.

What I enjoy the most about our textbook, How English Works, is how Anne Curzan (grammar maven with the TED talk What Makes a Word Real?) and Michael Adams side more with effective communication than strict rules. In fact, what stands out most in the first chapter of the textbook is the emphasis on how sociocultural influences constantly shift language. Our grammar rules cannot remain rules for long.

I remember being Kool-Aid sticky and grimed with summer dirt. I was told I couldn’t say “ain’t” because it wasn’t a word. Now that non-word can be found in many dictionaries.

A new word that grates on my nerves is “impactful.” I can’t explain why I despise it so much, although I don’t despise it as much as I despise “utilize.” These words emerge partially in a social effort to appear more important. Curzan and Adams describe how Benjamin Franklin once scorned the word “colonize” and Samuel Coleridge disliked “talented.” Now these words seem common place. They joke about how the “Word Police” won’t arrest anyone for usage violations, but that we make enormous judgments about other people based on how they use language.

I, for one, have been relieved to find myself released from some of my self-appointed grammar police tendencies. I love having the opportunity to turn a blind eye to a plural “they” applied to a singular pronoun, which allows it to be gender neutral if incorrect in its plurality. I know I’m witnessing language naturally morph to match the important need to eliminate gender bias.

After leaving the rules and regulations of the Air Force behind by retiring, I enjoy seeking freedom at every turn.

Including the turns of the open road. And if the “Word Police” won’t pull me over for using “good” as an adverb when someone asks me how I’m doing, it turns out a county sheriff will pull me over driving too fast while passing on a two-lane road. I was driving 15 miles per hour over the speed limit, so yes, I was violating a law. He also said I did not return to my lane before losing my dotted yellow passing line. That, from my perspective was not true. I took my lumps for speeding and he decided not to cite me for the other perceived violation.

That got me thinking about rules, laws, and perspective this week.

So what is a rule anyway? The Oxford English Dictionary gives its third definition of “rule” as “A principle, regulation, or maxim governing individual conduct.” My driving conduct operated outside the bounds of the rule about speed.

But my conduct couldn’t be governed without laws. Again, I turned to that most credible of dictionaries which lists as its second definition of “law” “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.”

Despite my newly found freedom as an Air Force retiree, I am equally subject to the rule of law as anyone else: “The authority and influence of law in society, esp. when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behavior; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.”

Have I gone off the deep end with linguistics, county sheriffs, and dictionary quotations? I don’t think so.

An informal poll of my friends shows that most of us were under the misperception that we could go as many as 10 miles per hour over the speed limit when passing another vehicle. I was mulling over how language is so malleable, much of our knowledge about laws is passed about socially, and that even an authority figure enforcing laws operates in the realm of subjectivity.

Who is to say whether or not I returned to my proper lane before I reached the double yellow lines? Who is to say whether or not my students should avoid passive voice in their academic writing? Who makes our rules? Who breaks our rules?

To my students this term, I am the county sheriff handing out speeding tickets for grammar violations in each point lost in the papers they write.

I find myself developing the theoretical framework of intentionality. My students need to know the communication moment in which they are writing so that they make intentional choices to produce the culturally appropriate prose for their intended effect. I need to be intentional about my speed as opposed to my impatience when I choose to pass a cement truck on a two-lane highway.

Both of these moments operate in the face of subjectivity. My students have to anticipate the language I am expecting and meet those rules. A law enforcement officer has to interpret the event before him (or her) and choose what level of punishment to inflict for breaking rules.

In the end, we need rules to function as a society. For you to read this blog, I need to follow general grammatical conventions. But, I also need to be aware that I can bend, even break, those rules to create a purposeful, creative effect. I think it’s about balance. I’m learning to help students find their successful academic voices without squashing their unique expressions.

I’m that county sheriff, writing a ticket for a few miles less than what the radar showed: asking me to be safe, but also telling me have a good day.

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