10-second review: Where do grammar rules come from? An exercise that demonstrates how notable writers violate “sacred precepts” about grammar.
Title: “The Tribunal of Use: Agreement in Indefinite constructions.” E S Sklar. College Composition and Communication (December 1988), 410-422. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).
Summary/Quote: “One class period in my intermediate-level composition course of which I am particularly fond revolves around what I call a ‘correctness exercise.’ This exercise consists of ten sentences, each containing at least one feature that would be considered erroneous by any American editor or composition teacher. Among these are a sentence using the British convention for punctuating quotations (the inverse of the American practice); a sentence from Shakespeare (modernized) featuring a double negative; and the following sentence from William Penn: ‘Every one in the family should know their duty.’ The point of the exercise is to suggest that many of the rules for ‘correct’ writing are both conventional and mutable, subject to modification over time and place.” p. 410.
Comment: In discussing these “aberrations” in modern grammatical practice, students will be learning the rules of modern practice. The William Penn sentence is an opportunity to teach how to avoid sexist language by using the plural and therefore avoiding the he/she, him/her construction that is so annoying in some of the professional English education journals that I read.
And a warning to students: Break the rules as these notable writers have done and your résumé or letter of application could go into the shredder—as I have observed first hand. RayS.