Franke: Making Sense of English

December 9, 2020

by Mark Franke

I used to find English class one of the most boring of all the subjects I suffered through in elementary and high school. I wanted nothing to do with it, even more so than those hated math classes.  

It wasn’t the teachers; it was the subject matter. The only part I liked was diagramming sentences, definitely the exercise all my classmates detested most. I was, and still am, a contrarian at heart.  

As a side note my wife taught language arts (a blatant subterfuge to hide what the subject matter really is) to grades two through eight in her career and she included diagramming as part of the instruction for older students. One former student, after getting a high school graduation gift from us, wrote his thank you note in a diagrammed sentence. That warmed the cockles of her teacher’s heart.

The problem remains that English has to be the most difficult language for someone to learn, especially for those who try to do it as an adult. Even most native speakers can’t put together a grammatically correct sentence, let alone spell every word correctly. Just listen to any conversation today. Extra credit if you can identify the dangling participles.  

Languages do change over time and informal speech sounds too awkward if rigorously held to grammatical purity. We all end sentences with prepositions in everyday speech but really shouldn’t in writing, at least not if we want to get an A.  

I will give a pass to sentence fragments such as the one I used a few paragraphs above, sentences ending in prepositions or beginning with conjunctions, and other informalities that don’t detract from meaning. My personal sensibilities scream stop to run-on sentences, commas separating a noun and its verb, and noun-verb disagreement.  

Still, something needs to be done to restore grammatical sanity to the English language. The current potpourri of exceptions and special cases doesn’t pass muster and needs to be brought up on charges before a linguistic supreme court.  

Any bill of indictment of the English language will contain the following accusations at a minimum: 

Here’s my modest proposal to bring rationality back into the English language: Whenever a toddler has his second birthday, assign a Ph.D. in English to follow him around for a full year, making notes of everything he says and the way he says it. All this data could then be analyzed by other highly educated people in computer science or mathematics or some such discipline. There are about four million two-year olds in the United States so this will provide gainful employment to a lot of people.

The result will be an English language that is no longer a memorized list of exceptions to rules that are confusing enough already. English classes will no longer be exercises in self-flagellation. Rather, in my brave new world our language will have a few simple rules that are always followed. The overarching principle is this: If that’s the way a two year old first says it, that’s the way we all will say it for the rest of our lives.   

Best of all, it will sound the death knell for irregular verbs. Requiescat in pace.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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