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So you think you can teach English

I hope you have been following the amusing back and forth on Martha Brockenbrough’s Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar about that and who. It started with a flat assertion by Professor Peter R. Jacoby of San Diego Mesa College that that must not be used to refer to human beings.*

Ever since discovering what Professor Jacoby is pitching to his youthful charges, I have been ruminating about how teachers of English and composition might address the complexities more responsibly, misleading the young as little as possible. This much I have come up with:

You make clear that your focus is on a dialect of English, what is called standard written English. You do not police conversation or informal communication.

You establish that formal written English has a series of registers that writers observe, adjusting according to subject, occasion, and audience.

You identify rules of grammar and usage, explaining variations and exceptions.

You identify guidelines for usage and take care to make clear that they are not rules. **

You identify points at which the language is in flux and explain that students will have to exercise judgment in deciding whether to observe a traditional usage or adopt a new one.

You are free to express personal stylistic preferences, so long as you make clear that they are not the Law and the Prophets.

You recommend reputable authorities that your students can consult, and you explain how to arrive at judgments when the authorities conflict.

You follow reputable authorities yourself and acquaint yourself with continuing conversations about the language, regularly modifying your own views when you encounter persuasive evidence or arguments otherwise.

You will not have time to accomplish all this thoroughly, and your students will display varying capacities of absorption. You do the best you can by them, and try to do better next term.


*His assertion is, of course, nonsense, as I pointed out in comments there and in a blog post here. There are numerous examples of the usage by reputable writers going back centuries. Garner’s Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage agree on the point; when you find a prescriptivist and a descriptivist in agreement on a point of usage, you can take it to the bank.

His assertion that using that to refer to human beings “depersonalizes,” is, of course, exquisite nonsense. We can take that up another time.


**Openly disagreeing with the textbook can be a useful technique here.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:59 PM | | Comments (6)


More on that/who. Two detailed posts from Motivated Grammar from 2008:

Thanks, John, for providing a new reading for the first day of my Advanced Grammar and Style course (should it ever get enough students to run as a class again). You capture beautifully the reasoning process for making mature judgments about grammar and usage. What a shame I can't convince our otherwise excellent Writing Lab staff to quit insisting on students "fixing" inane shibboleths (I suspect they fear, probably rightly, that the students are writing for faculty who demand adherence to said inane shibboleths).

Good point. Always identify the inane shibboleths, because the students will inevitably encounter ignorant teachers and bosses who will insist on them.

Thanks for this, and for your continual references to Garner—I think, anyway, because now that I own a copy, I want to drop everything else and read it!

I try to point out to my students that while they are in school, they have to write to suit their masters, even if logic and Garner et al. say the masters are wrong. When they get to the workplace, they will continue to write for their masters. But one day, when they get to be the boss....

Hope springs eternal!

It's useful to teach students that there are different registers for speech, as well, and that standard spoken English is neither identical to standard written English nor inferior to it.

If may suggest another: "Introduce your students to the word 'mumpsimus'."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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