Grammar Cops and Criminals

Students in a J-term first-year seminar 2016.

What the course catalog says:

Are you a "grammar criminal"? Do you sometimes use "improper" English because you grew up with a different way of writing or speaking? Do you sometimes violate grammar, style, or speaking rules on purpose because you prefer the effect of a different choice? If so, you might find yourself busted by a "grammar cop." Sometimes, these protectors of the English language get angry when new words are added to the dictionary, or they consider a person unintelligent for speaking with an accent. Sometimes they use language to include, exclude, rank, and sort others into groups. Why is this? Why do some people find it important to protect standard English, and why do others choose to rebel against it? In this course, we'll examine these questions while experimenting with standard and nonstandard types of written and spoken English. In discussions, presentations, and writings, students will consider the advantages and disadvantages of choosing a "life of crime" when using the English language.

What the professor says:

The idea for the course occurred to me as I was on the Internet watching random commenters mercilessly attack each other's grammar. Eventually, I started to think about all the other ways that people try to "police" other people's use of the English language.

Through this course, I hope students learn that language is evolving in nearly countless ways, and that people—even experts—disagree on what aspects of the English language should be valued and defended. I hope they learn never to accept someone's definition of "good" English without questioning it first.

The biggest advantage of first-year seminars, in my opinion, is the diversity of the student group. Because first-year students aren't being pushed to fulfill a narrow requirement during J-term, they can simply pick a course that interests them personally. As a result, we had folks from a variety of majors and all sorts of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I think that made the classroom a more interesting place to be.

—Mike Garcia, assistant professor of English

What the student says:

I've never had a course like this before. Our discussions about language quickly led to discussions about issues such as homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and sexism. I really enjoyed this, and it was a challenge to think deeply about these issues and to talk about them with classmates who thought differently than I did. 

In terms of the J-term schedule, I liked being able to focus on one thing and have a deeper, more meaningful discussion about it. I felt it benefitted me to be able to focus all of my energy on thinking deeper about one topic than thinking briefly about several things. This also meant that I was much more interested in the work that I was doing. 

—Jane Peña