5.2 Grammar as a Situated Practice

Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Natalie Boldt; and Nancy Ami

The word “grammar” can strike fear into the hearts of students (or anyone, except applied linguists) everywhere. Perhaps you are someone who loves grammar and enjoys sentence diagramming.[1] If you are, then we are willing to bet that you are in the minority. Whether you know it or not, you really are knowledgeable about grammar, because you are able to use language in such a way that others understand you. That is, if grammar is the operating rule of English, then you understand those rules, at least implicitly. You also know that certain types of grammar are used in certain situations. This is what we mean when we say that grammar is a situated practice. You use certain words and sentence structures and tenses (and so on) in certain communication and rhetorical situations and not in others.

All of this means that there is more than one way to speak English in any given context. Dr. Greg Younging, member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, provides grammatical and stylistic guidelines[2] for referring to Indigenous Peoples and also for when Indigenous Peoples write in English. Here are a few of the rules Younging lists that we thought you might find useful:

Terms that Should Be Capitalized

Terms for Indigenous identities; Indigenous governmental, social, spiritual, and religious institutions; and Indigenous collective rights should be capitalized.

Indigenous Colloquial English

Indigenous style recognizes Indigenous colloquial English as a legitimate literary device that should not be edited into “proper” English.

The Métis Resistances

The appropriate terms for events in the history of the Métis and Canada in 1869-70 and 1885 are the Red River Resistance and the Riel Resistance.

Inappropriate Possessives

Indigenous Peoples are independent sovereign nations that predate Euro-colonial states and are not “owned” by Euro-colonial states. Indigenous style therefore avoids the use of possessives that imply this, such as “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples,” or “our Indigenous Peoples,” and “the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.”[3]

As you can see, grammar or the rules of language have been used as a means to oppress others. For example, by using possessives to define the relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Peoples, a whole cultural group is designated as “owned” or “possessed” by another group. Grammar is powerful, which is why it’s vital to be aware of how language is assembled and operated. Let’s start with defining grammar, a notoriously loose and baggy term.

  1. To learn more about sentence diagramming, read this short article: Juana Summers, “A Picture of Language: The Fading Art of Sentence Diagramming,” NPR, August 22, 2014, npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/22/341898975/a-picture-of-language-the-fading-art-of-diagramming-sentences.
  2. Greg Younging, Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and About Indigenous Peoples (Brush Education, 2018).
  3. Younging, Elements of Indigenous Style, 81-91.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada 2nd Edition Copyright © 2022 by Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Natalie Boldt; and Nancy Ami is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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