Sledd, J. “On Not Teaching English Usage.” The English Journal 54.8 (1965): 698-703. Print.
In this article, James Sledd is precise in his distinctions between grammar, style, and usage and how this relates to students’ use of language. For Sledd, grammar referred to rules, while style referred to the writer’s choices. Usage, then, is about more limited choices. Sledd described it as:
“the study of socially graded synonyms, then tautologically such choices are determined by status only, and only one question is relevant to our choosing: Which form is used, and which form is approved, by those whose status we would like to share?” 698
In other words, usage is the “study of the social climber’s style.” The challenge in this, other than the oppression associated with the hierarchies in American society, Sledd suggested is that social structures and orders had changed.
To adjust to the change in the socio-cultural and political climates and how they were reflected in changing student bodies, Sledd said that teachers tried to make students change their language by speaking and writing in very specific ways. Sledd argued that effective pedagogy required teachers to raise above the level of being linguistic bully: “We cannot teach them to choose by making their choices for them” (700).
“Those among us who pretend we are good enough to set the crooked straight will have to try something much more difficult. We will have to teach the responsible choice of language for purposes broader and better than social
climbing. Social climbing never made much sense, and it makes still less when nobody knows which end is up.” (501)
In order to be responsible teachers Sledd contended that teachers needed to abandon some of the standards they were accustomed to and examine what ends are the standards serving. Sledd suggested that one of stakeholders being served is “Big Brother” where standardized language is supposedly necessary for an industrial society.
He basically called the upward mobility justification for teaching standard English “BS” and against the interests of the teachers themselves. Teachers who Sledd said were no longer “in the race” themselves were helping to sell the “upward mobility” ambition to the so-called “poor and ignorant” (701). According to Sledd, English teachers were no longer serving the students, but the wealth: “English teachers, who are out of the race themselves, must still help the gross national product to get grosser” (701).
Sledd prioritized student’s freedom and agency as human beings over institutional goal of social mobility, and to this end he offered one way English teachers could help students achieve the former: “When more people are shouting about freedom than understand it, we might set one frail example by not shouting but by speaking freely” (701).