Honi Soit Writing Competition

No future (tense) for prescriptionist grammar

A more inclusive approach to diverse language systems is needed

Text reading "No future(tense) for prescriptionist grammar", next to a pencil that has drawn a loop, on a pink gradient background

My mum is studying a linguistics degree. It has its hazards: the occasional text about labiodental fricative ‘f’s; borderline-unreasonably long chats about vernacular Englishes. But one of Mum’s grammar-related fun facts left me really concerned. “There’s no such thing as future tense in the English language.”

No such thing as the future tense? I was confused. Thirteen years of schooling and a bit of university, and I’d existed the whole time thinking “I will” was future tense. In fact, I imagine myself to be quite good at grammar, with a firm grasp on semi-colon usage, and what a copula is. Nonetheless, I had simply never learned that no verb inflections exist for the future tense in English. Rather, our expression of the future is based on mood and aspect, which implies a future without modifying the tense of verbs.

I think this is telling. Many amateur grammar snobs pedantically look down on colloquialisms, vernaculars, and various linguistic innovations on the basis that they’re not ‘proper grammar.’ But I’m unsure how many cranky grammar aficionados know that much about language at all.

Grammar snobs are more than an annoyance. I’d argue they take an entirely incorrect approach to English. At a point, linguistic prescriptivism becomes outdated, limiting rather than defending the integrity and beauty of a language. Prescriptivists who gleefully tell us that we’re using language wrong, saying words that everyone knows how to use don’t really mean what we think they do, telling us language is a logical system we are spoiling, espousing non-existent grammar rules like never putting a preposition at the end of a sentence. Sometimes grammar rules make sense, and help make English clearer — but too often they’re used to construct superiority around particular ways of speaking and writing.

Geoffrey Pullum’s paper ‘African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not Standard English with mistakes’ describes the media outrage that followed a Californian school board’s decision to encorporate AAVE into their teaching. The school recognised that AAVE was largely the language spoken at home by their students, thus adjusting their teaching to appropriately cater to that reality. The press was horrified, falsely suggesting schools would start teaching their students slang or ‘incorrect’ English. Pullum points out that this reaction is grounded in the view that AAVE, a dialect of English created by Black people in the US, is a bastardisation of Standard English. The reaction was misguided: AAVE has its own set of distinct, regular rules and uses language in consistent ways. Pullum claims: “there is no more reason for calling [AAVE] bad Standard English than for dismissing Minnesota English as bad Virginia speech.”

The prescriptivist hostility towards Black linguistic innovation is a good case study of the arrogant and discriminatory ways in which grammar ‘rules’ are applied. They are typically used to condescend the slang, vernacular Englishes, and modes of speaking of the working class and racialised minorities. Not speaking ‘properly’ is weaponised to imply people are uneducated, unintelligent and less worthy of being listened to.

In Australia, Aboriginal English is a dialect of English with its own lexicon and grammatical differences to standard Australian English. Rather than viewing it as ‘wrong’, we should view it as an intelligent and valuable adaptation to an imposed colonial language. Classism also creates unfavourable judgements of language — snobbish distaste for the perfectly reasonable and quite useful ‘youse’ means that working class Australians who created an efficient second person plural are deemed to be speaking improperly. Linguistic prescriptivists also pick on young women, nurturing an unhealthily fervent hate for ‘like’ as a filler word and an unreasonable disgust for low modality word choices.

If you’re a linguistic prescriptivist with a proud love of pedantry, a sense of superiority from knowing what a participle is, and a desire to lecture people on semi-colon usage, it’s worth some reflection. Are your criticisms grounded in a desire to make people’s speech and writing less ambiguous and easier to understand? Or are they about narrowly and restrictively defining what ‘correct’ English is, regardless of the fluency of communication? Are your critiques based  on real grammatical rules which evolve with the development of language, or are your rules the stuff of rigid style guides and handbooks of centuries past? Importantly, do your grammar rules make English more accessible, or are they used to construct ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English along prejudiced lines? And — pertinently if, like me, you didn’t understand tense until age 18 — how well do you understand the language you want to make rules about?