Grammar Fight

I ought to adhere more closely to the motto “don’t flaunt your ignorance,” but since I’m teaching this stuff, I feel like I need to try to expose my ignorance a little, so as to work toward becoming less so.

Have you ever read the beginning of the book on proper English usage, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves? If not, can you explain what’s wrong with applying that descriptor to a giant panda? I also liked this one (though I can’t remember who it’s attributed to): “time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” You know the cliche about turning down or tuning out your inner editor when writing an initial draft or brainstorming? Well, few things bring out the inner editor quite so much as a flawed writer pretending to be an authority, and teaching on subjects they have a rather poor command of themselves. Such is the case with our high school English textbooks.

As I was replying to comments on my last post I was reminded at how quickly people become intolerable, even to themselves, when trying to criticize other people’s grammar. It’s almost always in very bad taste to object to someone’s use of English unless they’re your student or it’s impossible to understand their meaning. At best it’s in very poor taste to reply to a blog post you don’t like by saying that the author has a poor command of English. Since I understand what you mean when you start a sentence with a conjunction, it isn’t my business whether you ought to have done so or not unless I’m editing your work, and I’m convinced I’d be an extremely annoying editor.

The main point I was driving at in my last post is that it’s difficult to teach with a textbook when you doubt the authority and judgement of the writer of that textbook, and yet are no authority yourself. On a ten point scale titled “command of the English tongue,” I might rate David Hart at a 9.5, myself at a 7 (when I’m being careful), and the writer of our English textbook at perhaps a 6; a 5 if you care about having something to say. It’s extremely distracting to be constantly thinking about exercises and readings in the textbook: sure, you could say it like that, but it’s not very good, and I would certainly never insist on it. Compare that with, for instance, Jacques Barzun (who learned English when he was around12 as I recall), who obviously writes better than I do, so that if we were to disagree, it would probably be because I had misjudged something.

I’ve noticed that, while there are a lot of words and phrases that can be used all the time and drilled again and again without wearing out, there are a lot of others that are best used sparingly if at all, and as we make no distinction between the kinds of phrases, I end up wanting to ask students simply not to use that phrase at all. To take another example, a few months ago we learned in tenth grade “my mother is of (Polish) origin.” Of course, everyone will understand what you mean if you say that. I don’t know that it’s exactly wrong. Nevertheless, I don’t think that we should make students memorize that phrase without further comment, because it’s almost always awkward, and there are very few instances where that phrase is a substantial improvement on “my family is originally from,” or something of the sort, whereas there are a great many where it would be worse, and it seems like a bad idea to make an ELL student memorize a construction that is difficult to use correctly rather than a more common construction that’s just as good and much easier to use well. My family is originally from Scotland and Ireland. My family is of scottish and Irish origin. They should be able to recognize the latter, but using it needs a rather specific context, I think.

Whatever this might mean for the students (I suppose it will mean a lot of young Georgians saying things like “I did not use to appreciate the nature, but now I am mad about it”), it is extremely distracting as a teacher, because reading a text to evaluate it is entirely different from proofreading– and our textbook is just untrustworthy enough to encourage a proofreading approach, rather than some more constructive method of engaging the text.


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