The Pale Usher: A Case Against Grammar

Note: this post is part of WAC’s ongoing conversation about teaching grammar. I am indebted to the program’s “Minimal Marking and Effective Grading” workshop as well as Christina Quintana’s fine blog post “Weighing in on the Grammar Debate,” both of which are available on this website.

The first character to shuffle onto the pages of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a grammarian. Yes, before Ishmael tells us what to call him, before even the “Sub-Sub-Librarian” presents his list of quotations on whales and whaling, the reader sees a “Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School” provide an etymology of the word “whale.” This is how Melville describes his linguistic authority:

“[The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.]”

What can we assume about Melville’s grammarian? Despite the cosmopolitanism suggested by his multi-flagged hanky—and which “mockingly embellished” exposes as a joke at its owner’s expense—the usher is a sickly man cut off from the living. What matters to him are his dusty books, which have in all likelihood long outlasted their relevance. The passage’s dusty darkness makes me imagine the usher underground. Does the usher know how people, living people, speak and write? Or does his only knowledge come from moldy textbooks? Though the usher works at a grammar school, students are absent from this portrait.

I wish to argue that when we emphasize grammar over ideas, spelling over structure, and punctuation over logic, we run the risk of becoming, like Melville’s usher, threadbare in heart and mind—in heart because we must be callous to think that today’s students’ relationships to English will not be different from our own, and in mind because we must be willfully ignorant to pretend that language and its rules have not changed since we were in grade school.

(I am not suggesting that we regard Melville’s assessment of the usher without irony. After all, Chapter 95 of Moby-Dick compares a ship-worker called the “mincer” to an archbishop or Pope. What are the “peculiar functions” of the mincer’s “office,” which he performs in a “conspicuous pulpit”? He cuts whale blubber into slices as thin as bible pages and drops them into a boiling pot, all while wearing as protection from the liquifying fat a suit made from the skin of the whale’s penis. The mincer’s unholy holy vestments inspire the chapter’s title, “The Cassock.”)

What I am advocating is nothing more than patience towards the eccentricities of our students’ writing. You might protest, “This I cannot do!,” but the fact is that you already afford this kind of patience to other writers. Did you scoff at the incomplete sentence that Melville places before a semi-colon in the quotation above? Or at his extraneous, Trump-like capitalization of “usher”? (Our Commander-in-Chief is also our country’s most delinquent prose stylist.) What’s the story with those peculiar brackets that surround the passage? More to the point: were you nauseated by my own sentence fragment starting “Or at his extraneous,” or by the overtly Yiddish syntax of “This I cannot do”?

My point is that we make exceptions for writers all the time. If you are a scholar, then you have experience reading tedious, jargon-laden sentences of astonishing and needless length. You may even write such sentences. Why not extend our students the same courtesy that we grant our colleagues, who should also be writing at a higher level than they are? (“They should already know how to do this!” is the grievance I hear most often about student writing. Yes—and I should be playing for the New York Knicks.) If we choose to read our students’ work with patience, we can offer the type of feedback that will help them become better writers. But if we dismiss our students for not already possessing the education that we are supposed to give them, then what kind of educators are we?

I will confess that, like the pale usher, I am fond of reflecting on my own mortality. (For my money, English verse’s finest couplet may be, “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.”) Yet I never wish to be a cadaverous educator. The classroom is a place to be alive: alive, and attentive—to ideas and to dialogue, to change, to the at times startling gap between ourselves and our students, to the diverse ways our students communicate, and to the voice that encourages us to adapt.