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River Town Chronicles: The joys of watching your language

My mother had a low tolerance for harsh language. Should she hear me tell one of my brothers to “shut up,” she’d advise me, “Watch your language, young man!”

Turns out, I followed her advice. Today I teach high school English, facilitate a writing group and pen occasional poetry and prose – not to mention joyfully hammering out this column every other week. Watching my language became my passion, entranced by its words, its rhythms, its forms.

Such devotion has its drawbacks. At dinner parties, if I answer the question, “And what do you do?” with “Oh, I’m an English teacher” (or when feeling sado-masochistic, “poet”), it stuns the best Churchillian conversationalist into silence, although not before mumbling, “Oooh, I better watch my language.”

When hearing this, I’m tempted to say: “Why now? Don’t you want to communicate clearly and effectively with people all the time? Why mind your linguistic manners only with me?”

But I don’t, because most people simply want to be understood. They figure if they can drive their points across using an unwashed smart car, why bother polishing a Bentley? Why worry about choosing between “between” and “among;” why worry about the double negative “irregardless;” and why worry whether “this” or “that” accompanies a restrictive clause?

I sympathize. Grammar, usage and stylistic “rules” forced on innocent middle-schoolers like a secular Ten Commandments can only be enforced by niggling English teachers and persnickety parents like mine; kids – and adults – can’t be arrested for going over the adverb limit.

Not that I’m condemning my colleagues (or myself) for encouraging students to use accepted forms of today’s standard English (with one exception: force a 14-year-old to diagram a sentence smacks of extreme interrogation). In fact, most of us dedicate our lives to passing on the personal fulfillment of using clear, creative modes of expression. How much more delectable is a well-paced sentence with a dollop of surprising words arranged to delight its reader or listener – rather than simply laying down brick after unimaginative brick to build information!

That said, language is organic, not plastic. Take the aforementioned “irregardless” (please!), with its redundant prefix. Imagine how betrayed I felt when hearing Kory Stamper, associate editor of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, announce on NPR’s "Fresh Air" that, due to its frequent use, no matter its illogical meaning, the word now graces the dictionary.

And what about that pesky no-ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition rule? Stamper blames it on Latin, a dead language whose ghost haunts dyslexic botanists. The language’s inherent structure forbids ending a sentence with a preposition or splitting an infinitive, so pedantic British grammarians centuries ago decided English should pay homage to the deceased speakers of the Roman Empire by making their people suffer the same fate.

Today, however, anyone arrogant enough to haughtily fault someone for breaking those two rules should not be put up with. Rather, good writing emphasizes, as much as its meaning, a sentence’s cadence and voice. Insist on a rule, and lose the magic.

Even if a fragment.

Rick Holinger teaches English at Marmion Academy and has published his poetry, fiction, and essays in numerous literary journals. Contact him at

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