Once I was a happy Pinkerite. A native speaker can no more write ungrammatically than a bird can fly “incorrectly,” I told my classes. Only Miss Thistlebottom was exercised by sins against prescriptive grammar—she and tightly clenched old fogies like William Safire and John Simon. I found the knotting of the problem in The End of the Road screamingly funny. Jacob Horner is undergoing therapy for an unnamed malady in June 1953 (shell shock from the Korean War?) when his doctor tells him that he needs a “more meaningful job” (“A career, you know. A calling. A lifework”). He directs Jacob to apply for a post at the local teachers college:
“English literature, I guess.”
“No. There must be a rigid discipline, or else it will be merely an occupation, not an occupational therapy. There must be a body of laws. You mean you can’t teach plane geometry?”
“Oh, I suppose—” . . .
“Nonsense. Of course you can’t. Tell them you will teach grammar. English grammar.”
“But you know, Doctor,” I ventured, “there is descriptive as well as prescriptive grammar. I mean, you mentioned a fixed body of rules.”
“You will teach prescriptive grammar.”
“No description at all. No optional situations. Teach the rules. Teach the truth about grammar.”
Then I became a father. “I runned across the playground,” my son says. “Ran,” I interject. “Huh?” “Ran. ‘I ran across the playground.’ ” Later my other son says, “Daddy, I brang the thermos home.” “Brought. ‘I brought the thermos home.’ ” If they weren’t five years old they would roll their eyes and sigh heavily, “Whatever.”
Verb tenses blunt the teeth even of native speakers when they are young, but I have never heard one of my sons misuse the reflexive. In a local radio ad for the Houston Aeros, the announcer urges his listeners to tune in for the next game: “Listen to myself, M——— G———,” he says. “Listen to yourself, you maroon,” I shout at the radio. Even my two-year-old doesn’t make that mistake. “I hurt myself,” he explains when I ask why he is crying. He doesn’t say, “Myself hurt myself.”
Which suggests to me that some errors must be learned just as some verb tenses must be. If I never corrected them, I wonder, would my boys grow up saying runned and brang? Are culture and the “language instinct” really binary opposites, or does the opposition of culture to nature, as Longinus argues, belong to culture?
Jacob Horner asks his students at Wicomico State Teachers College a slightly different question. “Who’s more free in America? . . . The man who rebels against all the laws or the man who follows them so automatically that he never even has to think about them?” So Jacob (and behind him, waving shyly, John Barth) is a cultural conservative, then, “out to rescue prescriptive grammar from the clutches” of radicals? Not exactly. “[T]he greatest radical in any society,” he goes on, ”is the man who sees all the arbitrariness of the rules and social conventions, but who has such a great scorn or disregard for the society he lives in that he embraces the whole wagonload of nonsense with a smile.”
But cultural values, including the rules of grammar, only appear arbitrary, and only to grownup intellectuals. For children the case is otherwise, and those who must raise them within this society, and not just any society, discover that they must take responsibility for that fact. “The child cannot learn from scratch what took millennia to learn,” says the psychiatrist Theodore Lidz in The Origin and Treatment of Schizophrenic Disorders, “but must learn his culture’s system in order to think and communicate coherently.” A system of arbitrary values could not even be described coherently, which is why Jacob Horner’s great radical confines himself to the cultural system he has already learned.