As a Living Language, English is Malleable and Still Changing by Matthew Nadelson

When I think back about what I really learned in college, aside from the insights I received during a handful of fascinating lectures and conversations with excellent professors, the ideas I still remember today are the conclusions I came to myself regarding the material presented, much of which were based on material presented in other courses.

Looking back, I realize that it was the culmination of these courses that allowed me to observe alternative, and often opposing, viewpoints and arrive at my own conclusions.

Of course, I wasn’t just drawing on my experience from other college courses when I came to these conclusions, but my life experiences as well. And, the clearest material was the material I could most relate to personally. Now that I have taught for eight years, I understand that a similar personal connection to the material can be beneficial to the teacher as well.

Because of this, I think the best advice I could give any teacher (of high school and above), in addition to more obvious things such as letting students’ questions and comments direct the discussion, is that we not only must show the students how the material relates to their lives, but we also must present the material in a way that relates to our own lives.

When teachers don’t do this, students lose interest. And really, why should they care about something that they can’t imagine providing any practical benefit to their lives? Grades are rudimentary motivators at best.

Another problem I see is that too often too many teachers fail to place their subject matter in the proper context. They present it almost in a vacuum.

Here is an example: About five years ago, when we were both 30, an extremely smart woman I had grown up with, asked me whether it was OK to start a sentence with “and.”

She didn’t know whether it was ever OK to start a sentence with one of the most common words in our language. I don’t know where my friend went to school, but I’m pretty sure she has lived in Orange County all her life, and somewhere along the line, a college professor had told her it was never OK to start a sentence with “and.”

Of course, what this person had neglected to tell her was that in a college-level essay, it is generally not a great idea to start a sentence with “and” because it is informal (and it could be argued that the job of a coordinating conjunction such as “and” is to coordinate between independent clauses or … blah blah blah).

But this teacher had failed to explain to my friend the importance of audience, purpose and occasion in college writing, and how all these things determine the level of formality in the writing, and also the fact that English is a living language and English punctuation is only a few hundred years old and has changed radically in that short time.

For my money, the great American poet Walt Whitman said it best:

“Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.”

My friend’s anxiety over the use of “and” is not even the best example of this. One time an English tutor told me that he had been told by his teachers that the word “good” was never correct to use… ever – that “it should always be ‘well.’” He had no idea that “good” is the adjective and “well” is the adverb, meaning they are both good but should be used well.

Hopefully, this student wasn’t actually told this, but this is what he remembered … perhaps because he (or the instructor) couldn’t understand the practical application of such knowledge and therefore (perhaps even subconsciously) had no interest in really understanding the material.

Matthew Nadelson of Corona teaches English at Norco College and leads an Inlandia creative writing workshop every other Tuesday night at the Corona Library. Contact him at