Mark Oppenheimer has a piece in double X in which he discusses flogging his daughters.
OK, not really. What he says is that “parents can still insist on a certain vernacular in the household, which we’re free to enforce with, you know, repeated floggings with copies of Strunk & White.” He’s, you know, joking. Except that he really does want to insist on “a certain vernacular,” and by “vernacular” he means the opposite of a vernacular, which (per Merriam-Webster) is “a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language,” “the normal spoken form of a language.” He wants to enforce a form of the language that nobody actually speaks but that he thinks it vital to pretend to his daughters is the real thing. He starts off by saying “when Rebekah, who is now 2 and a half, started parroting our language back to us, we discovered a concern that had never before occurred to us: our grammar”:
I started to worry that if I didn’t get my “whom”s and my “who”s lined up right, Rebekah would spend a lifetime running afoul of her English teachers, or at least of the ghost of my late grandmother Rebekah, her namesake, who never forgave her home state of Pennsylvania for the ungrammatical legend on its license plate, you’ve got a friend in pennsylvania. “It should be you have a friend in pennsylvania,” she wrote to her state senator…. What if I bequeathed to my daughter the habit of saying “a whole nother topic of conversation,” instead of saying, simply, “a whole other”?
Worst of all, what if she inherited my generation’s habit of saying “like” all the time? I long ago made peace with my own inability to de-like-ify my speech, but I have always taken some comfort in the existence of older people, parents and grandparents and aging teachers, who do not speak that way. They uphold the dignity of the language so that I don’t have to. But my grandparents are dead and gone, and here I am, raising two impressionable girls (Rebekah has a baby sister), and teaching the occasional college class. I was not, I had to admit, being the role model I ought to be. I said to myself, ”I’d better start speaking like a grown-up.”
He goes on to admit that it’s a faulty assumption that “how grown-ups speak determines how their children speak” and that “there is nothing moral about ‘good’ grammar for its own sake, just as there is nothing morally repugnant about trendy vernacular habits, like the rising inflection, common among adolescent girls, called up-speak…. English usage is a matter of convention, and it changes with time; it was not ordained by God, nor by language prisses who think they are God…. To demand that my children adhere to particular linguistic rules, on the supposition that rules I was taught are fixed like the stars, would be nonsensical, and a bit tyrannical.”
So it would, so it would. End of story, one might think; but no, he continues thus:
Still, anything does not go. My maternal grandparents, who were born soon after the turn of the 20th century, modeled certain principles of correct English usage for a few reasons (only one of which was snobbery). For starters, as the children of immigrants who never learned English well, they understood that life was not fair, that there were precincts in America where one was judged according to how far one deviated from some uncodified, but widely recognized, Standard English. They wanted to equip their children to use it. They also loved the tongue and believed that treating spoken as well as written English with care equaled respect for education. These are things I’d like my daughters to understand. Language is not, ultimately, something about which to be slovenly.
My grandparents also took a certain pleasure in using grammar and habits of speech to create a distinct culture of the home. At 819 Carpenter Lane, one said “between you and me,” not “between you and I.” I have inherited that preference. I’ll also correct my children’s inevitable “Tessa and me are going to the park.” Also, if God forbid I ever have to, “irregardless.” My children will no doubt find this annoying, especially if I do it in front of their friends. They may think my “It is she” sounds ridiculous—reasonable enough, since that usage is antiquated and arguably inferior to the more natural “It’s her.” But maybe 10 years later they’ll remember it as one of my silly rules, and 10 years after that hear themselves insisting on it to my grandchildren.
He doesn’t seem to grasp how contradictory this is, how (not to put too fine a point on it) nuts. If English usage is a matter of convention and to demand that children adhere to particular linguistic rules “would be nonsensical, and a bit tyrannical,” why on earth is he demanding that his daughter adhere to these particular linguistic rules? Explicitly, so that she can in turn insist on his “silly rules” to her own children. This is how this craziness gets passed on, and I want it ended. If you’re smart enough to see that the linguistic forms that were forced on you are arbitrary and silly, you’re smart enough to stop the madness. Do I have to quote Philip Larkin to you? (And hey, I just found a YouTube clip of Larkin reading “This Be The Verse” [link corrected: thanks, Ben and rootlesscosmo]—what a wonderful world! And thanks for the double X link, Margaret.)