Category Archives: Word Magic

The Words of My Mouth (1946)

LaBrant, L. (1946, June). The words of my mouth. English Journal, 35(6), 323-327.

Exploring the relationship between words and attitudes, LaBrant confronts teaching students about words and language within the context of their changing and nuanced meanings.

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Quoting LaBrant:

The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance. Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues-all of these may be evils in the English classes as in others. Indeed, many of our classifications, built on results of reading tests, tend to promote rather than to destroy the kind of antisocial situation just mentioned….The question is briefly: Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323)

First, let us be clear that any principles of teaching which are important for one group are equally important for another. There is something of condescension in talking only of prejudices toward minorities, as though there existed minorities incapable themselves of the same kinds of attitudes which majorities easily attain. The principles are universal and should be approached in that way.

A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)

Shall we, therefore, urge children and young people to drop the word “Jew” from their vocabulary? No more than we drop the words “fairy” or”dragon.” But we should certainly make them understand that the original meaning has been lost, and that only in referring to an ethnic group has it any validity; that, indeed, it is frequently misleading and best avoided….

This leads naturally to a related principle of language growth: that, as we have developed in the complexity of our civilization, as our experiences have multiplied in number beyond any possible number of words, we have had to use abstract terms to include many objects, experiences, ideas. These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading. Class names, such as “labor,” “capital,” “whites,” “Christians,” and so forth are among these terms. Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his life explain what he means. (p. 325)

Parenthetically, it may be right to suggest here that the most effective teaching comes from good example….

She is suggesting the primitive belief that by avoiding the words she is avoiding the differences. We have much of this word magic indirectly taught in our classrooms. (p. 326)

Teaching how language works is not a matter of formulas which, once applied, are forever effective. We have tried for some decades now to teach “rules” of grammar, with the expectation that, once they were memorized and illustrated through one or fifty sets of exercises, we would have established a pattern for sentence structure. Our ears tell us that this method is almost completely futile. Similarly, we cannot expect to teach in a few lessons the ways to use language to promote intergroup understandings, and to prevent its potential strengthening of our prejudices and ignorance. Language is much too closely associated with our daily living, much too complicated; and the influences outside the school are much too strong for any sudden or easy competence to be developed. The teacher needs first to question her own use, as she would question her own habits of verb agreement or pronoun reference. (p. 327)

The Individual and His Writing (1950)

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writing. Elementary English27(4), 261-265.

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LaBrant discusses the role of writing as a contemporary (to 1950) need for students. She identifies examples of how literacy (writing) has changed in society. Recognizing the importance of writing, LaBrant argues for ways to teach writing well, including “what an intelligent person in our country should know about language” (p. 263). She concludes with four points for teachers of writing to consider.

Quoting LaBrant:

Related to all of the foregoing is our fairly successful attempt to bring reading and writing to the masses of the people whereas it was once the possession of the few and privileged, and a resultant tendency to treasure books and written copy less. (p. 262)

Moreover, it is probable, though I would find it hard to prove, that doing careful writing is the best device for understanding careful writing, and the best device for teaching critical and understanding reading. (p. 263)

Once on a time we teachers of the primary and secondary school and even of the first college courses, thought our prime duty was to teach about sentence structure (“Grammar” we called it, although grammar is also much more than structure) and achieve a fairly respectable use of conventional form in the sentence. We now know that good usage is most effectively taught by direct correction and change, and by reading. We no longer believe that teaching abstract statements about the need for a verb will result in the use of verbs, and we can be certain if we read the literature that similar failure will result from other similar measures applied to agreement, case, and/ or any grammatical structure. (p. 263)

There is other sematic knowledge with which our students should become familiar. They should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what we say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or the postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word magic. (p. 264)

Perhaps not everyone in the land is ready to read Macbeth or to write a sonnet. Better, it seems to me, that each read what he can honestly understand, and admit on occasion that he is baffled; better that the boy or girl write a simple account of what he saw on the street than that he write a collection of stereotypes on democracy. Let him, perhaps, admit with all of us that he is learning about democracy and has much to read and to think before he can say what should be. Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. Alice was wrong, for once: It makes a great deal of difference whether one says “important” or “unimportant.” (p. 265)