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Make Grammar Do: American Literature & the Politics of Language - ENG00109H

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Lola Boorman
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24
    • See module specification for other years: 2022-23

Module summary

What does grammar have to do with the nation? For Walt Whitman this was an essential question. As he writes in his American Primer, American English is ‘grandly lawless… or rather it breaks out of the little laws to enter truly the higher ones’. Some years later the critic H.L. Mencken took a similar view, noting that American speech ‘defies all the injunctions of the grammar books.’ For a host of twentieth and twenty-first century writers, grammar becomes a crucial means of literary and political self-expression. How these writers ‘make grammar do’ is a key factor in how they articulate the manifold complexities of their Americanness.

Make Grammar Do explores language politics, linguistics, and multilingualism in twentieth and twenty-first century American fiction. The module will chart US language politics from the turn of the twentieth century to the present day, exposing and interrogating how language is central to the key political and social debates that shape American culture, from the Ford English School which sought to assimilate and homogenize immigrant work forces, to the Ebonics controversy of the 1990s, to the discordant languages of humanitarianism, bureaucracy and national security in US border policy. Throughout the module, we’ll consider a variety of perspectives on language – including linguistic theory, language philosophy, translation theory, and popular grammar books – alongside a series of authors whose writing engages with these diverse and varied contexts. In doing so, we’ll not only consider an alternative literary and political history that places issues of language at the centre of US cultural life but also explore how American English is, at its origin, polyglot, globalised, and always already translated.

Over the course of the module you will be introduced to a variety of experimental literary texts and movements and you will also uncover the centrality of grammar to the history of literary criticism ( including philology, composition, (post)structuralism, literary stylistics, speech act theory, new formalism, and the digital humanities). The module will help students develop skills in literary and linguistic analysis and furnish them with new ways of connecting form (both literary and linguistic) with politics and history.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

The module aims to explore the connections between twentieth and twenty-first century American literature, language politics, and literary criticism by focusing on the linguistic, literary and political concept of ‘grammar’. The module will offer you the chance to explore the centrality of grammar to literary experimentalism and literary theory, and help you develop informed methods of close textual analysis that attend to philosophical, historical, political and theoretical shifts in the study of the English language in America.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with the language politics of twentieth and twenty-first century American fiction.

  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with the role of grammar in the history of American literary criticism.

  3. Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields dealing with the connection between literary studies and linguistics, and key movements in twentieth and twenty-first century American literature.

  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will be given the opportunity to submit a 1000-word formative essay for the module, which can feed into the 3000-word summative essay submitted at the end of the module.

Your essay will be annotated and returned to you by your tutor within two weeks.

You will submit your summative essay via the VLE during the revision and assessment weeks at the end of the teaching semester (weeks 13-15). Feedback on your summative essay will be uploaded to e:Vision to meet the University’s marking deadlines.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment

Indicative reading

Indicative Reading:

Zora Neale Hurston: ‘Story in Harlem Slang’, ‘Now You Cookin’ with Gas’ (1930s)

Gertrude Stein, from How to Write (1931)

Henry Roth, Call it Sleep (1934)

Américo Paredes, George Washington Go´mez (1936-40)

Carlos Bulosan, ‘The Story of a Letter’ (1946)

Globularius Schraubi ‘Evacuese Characters and How to Analyze Them’ (1943) and other stories from Trek

Fran Ross, Oreo (1974)

Selections of poetry by Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks

Short stories by Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis and others.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, from Dictee (1982)

Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)

Selected poems from LANGUAGE poets such as Haryette Mullen, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and others.

Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (2017)

Valeria Luiselli Lost Children Archive (2019)

Ocean Vuong, On Earth They Were Briefly Gorgeous (2019)

Indicative Secondary Reading:

Apter, Emily, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2006)

Barthes, Roland. ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’ (1977)

Cavell, Stanley. ‘Must We Means What We Say?’ (1958)

Derrida, Jacques, Monolingualism of the Other, or the Prothesis of Origin (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998)

Freeman, Donald. Linguistics and Literary Style (1970)

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford UP, 1987).

Koerner, E.F.K. Toward a History of American Linguistics (New York: Routledge, 2002)

Labov, William. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972).

Mencken, H.L. The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States (New York: Knopf, 1936)

Selections from grammar books by Noah Webster, Lindley Murray, Samuel Kirkham, Strunk and White, the American Heritage Dictionary.

Miller, Joshua. Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism (New York: Oxford UP, 2011)

North, Michael, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford UP: 1994)

Ohmann, Richard. English in America (New York: Oxford UP, 1976)

Rickford and Rickford. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2000).

Sollors, Werner. ed., Multilingual America (New York: New York UP, 1998)

Walkowitz, Rebecca. Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia UP, 2015)

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature (Princeton UP, 2009)

Yao, Steven G. Translation and the Languages of Modernism (New York: Palgrave, 2002)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.