Language is not a static thing. Like the round characters
you read about, language continues to change and evolve over time. It is dynamic.
Keep this in mind as you prepare for the TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™ Writing subtest. Grammar conventions and usage are important to writing a successful response.
One of the Writing subtest high emphasis
topics asks students to apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested. But why is it important to know that language changes? And, how can it help you on the TASC test?
Language and Grammar
Grammar, as defined by the instructors at State University of New York (SUNY)
, is “the set of underlying rules that makes possible meaningful utterances” in any language. Grammar differs between languages and must be understood by the individuals who are using that particular language. Without an understanding of grammar, communication would be impossible.
You could say that grammar and language have a causal relationship—when grammar changes, language must change as a result, and when language changes, so must grammar. They depend on one another.
You might feel overwhelmed by English grammar to accurately understand its conventions and changes. However, as the SUNY instructors point out, if you speak the language competently, if other people can understand and communicate with you, then you actually know English grammar. You are using nouns, verbs, modifiers, and other forms of grammar, even if you do not understand the technical definitions of those terms.
Usage and How It Changes
Usage, then, is the habitual or customary practices in spoken or written language. There are some differences between spoken and written language; some usages are more appropriate for spoken language, and would be considered informal in written language. The instructors at SUNY provide a good example: “Anyone who speaks English competently understands, and knows how to use, the word ain’t
, a word that has been part of the language for nearly two hundred years. Yet, at least in written English, ain’t
is widely frowned upon as acceptable usage.”
Usage helps you understand how language works, and how individuals will use language in different ways to express themselves. Conventional usage might seem subjective, or even illogical. Remember that any changes made to language or grammar are in response to a larger trend of communication. When many people begin to use a word in a particular way, that use spreads and the word’s new usage becomes conventional.
Who? Why? How?
You might be left wondering who controls these changes, why it’s important, and how you can use this new information on the TASC test.
Teachers, editors, and compilers of dictionaries and usage manuals primarily determine which usages are considered acceptable or unacceptable. These educators and writers are largely responsible for regulating conventions because they are the ones who tell you whether or not your word choice is accurate and logical. Often, they take into consideration whether the word has character and if it is lucid, simple, direct, and aesthetic.
It should be noted that some conventional usages may not be considered acceptable, but may persist and be used conversationally or informally – think of slang words, such as basic
It is important for you to be aware of changes in conventions for two reasons:
- You might be reading older material while preparing for the TASC test or while taking the test. As a reader, you should always be aware of the year the work was published. The year is typically included in the title information. When it is published, and any historical context you can gain from that time period, can be helpful when it comes to understanding unfamiliar words or words that look familiar but are being used in a different context. For example, prior to the 1920s the word gay meant happy or If you are reading an excerpt from a book written in the 1800s that uses the term gay to describe one of its characters, the meaning is not the same as it is today. Use the context to help you determine changes in conventional usage like this.
- Students should be prepared to “explore how conventions are used in specific contexts and genres to achieve a particular effect with an audience,” according to Kathleen Cali and Kim Bowen of Learn NC. Test takers will be expected to understand how conventions contribute to the reader’s understanding of a text as a whole, and how an author uses those conventions to mold that understanding.
Some professional writers actually defy these conventions to achieve certain effects and impact their readers in specific ways. If you are writing a response to a specific passage, knowing how an author is using conventions can dramatically impact your reading of the passage.