Ungrammatical School District Email

My employer, the Clark County School District, recently set up an online system for accessing certain private financial information electronically.  As a security measure, the system automatically sends you a notice when the account is accessed.  However, I found it disconcerting when I received the following message in my inbox:

This is an automated message to inform you accessed your Employee Self Service (ESS) profile on 02/25/2011 07:35:01 PM.

“To inform you accessed your?!”  What the heck?  It hardly builds confidence in an educational institution when their official messages sound like they were poorly translated from another language.  Yeesh.

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Is Mario A Male Maria?

One aspect of my interest in language is names.  Tonight, as I drove home from work, I saw a restaurant sign that included the name Mario, and it hit me for the first time: this name seems to do the opposite of what I usually notice names do.

Many female names are clearly adapted from older male names: 

  • Stephanie is a female Stephen
  • Paulette is a female Paul
  • Andrea is a female Andrew
  • Roberta is a female Robert
  • Michaela is a female Michael
  • Patricia is a female Patrick
  • Joan is a female John
  • Christina is a female Christopher

Notice that most of these examples are from men in the Bible.  This is important.  As those names are very old and very influential in Western cultures, it’s natural that female versions would evolve.

Mario, however, seems to have gone the other way: if Mari-o and Mari-a are related, the older name is Maria, which in English is Mary.  It makes sense that if names get adapted across genders because of age and cultural influence, especially Biblical names, then the name of the ultimate woman in the Bible would naturally produce a male version. 

This is all just speculation, though–I’m not a linguist.  But I’d like to look into this to see if I’m right.

“I Defiantly Agree!”

As often as students commit the typical errors of writing—the fragments, the missing punctuation, the misspellings—there is one very specific mistake that I see dozens of times every year that nobody else seems to have mentioned: it’s using the word “defiantly” in the wrong place.

Over the years, I’ve had endless students write down and turn in papers with sentences like these:

“I defiantly think that I will go to college.”

“I would defiantly not ever want to read something like this again.”

“Will I read another book like this one? Defiantly!”

The last example makes it sound as if not only will this young person be reading more books in the future, but will be doing so with a stoic, stubborn rebelliousness, directly in the face of antagonistic opposition. “You dare to chain me down and hold back my reading habits? I will rise up and overthrow your anti-literate regime!” You go, girl!

Obviously, what these students meant to write is “definitely.” But how did the one word become the other? And how the heck are dozens—hundreds—of kids making the same weird mistake?

I mean, it’s not like this is a simple typo; no single slip of a finger could do this. The words differ in multiple places, and the pronunciations are hardly similar at all.

My theory is that there must be some common misspelling of “definitely” that Microsoft Word changes to “defiantly.” I tried typing all the incorrect versions of “definitely” that I could think of, but Microsoft didn’t want me to turn any of them into “defiantly,” so maybe I’m wrong.

For their part, most of the students don’t seem to understand the mistake, much less are they able to explain it, but it sure makes for some funny reading for me!

Holy Crap!

I heard this exclamation today and it hit me for the first time: what an odd juxtaposition.  Of all the things in the world that are unlikely to be holy, crap would have to be near the top of the list.  I’ve spent some number of years studying religion and many a Sunday in church, and I have yet to ever come across anything even remotely like consecrated poo. 

Hmmm.  Well, maybe The Purpose Driven Life

I guess “holy cow” would also be a strange juxtaposition, but I always just assumed that this phrase was making fun of Hinduism.

What’s Wrong–And What’s Right–With Student Writing

Last week I got a reading-response journal from a high school freshman in my honors class, about an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue Crito (which I’ve described and quoted here before); her paper started off like this:

From Cristo was written by Plato. This story talks about this guy named Socrates whom was sentenced to presin for “corrupting the youth.” although he is inasant and trys to prove it, the juriry desides he is still guilty. He agrues for his inasance. But for all it was pointless. He had the chance to run away but he wanted to prove his inasance. If he would have ran away; other “cities” they wouldn’t welcome him with open arms because he disabad the law by running away. He is killed.

It took me a minute to figure out some of the words: “inasant” is “innocent,” and “disabad” is “disobeyed.”  What accounts for such awful spelling?  Easy–people write like this because their only real engagement with the language has been verbal.  Writing like this–with phonetic spelling, slang, fragments, etc.–comes about because the writer only knows what the language sounds like out loud. 

To put it another way, we now write like this because we don’t read anymore.  Exhaustive experience reading a language used formally is the only way to learn to write fluently.  It’s a simple formula, no more complicated or less effective than any Sunday School answer: if you want to write well, you have to read first.  A lot. 

This dumbing down of written language due to almost exclusively oral experience is especially problematic in students for whom English is a second language, or not spoken at home.  For the girl quoted above, notice how the Greek name “Crito” becomes the Spanish word “Cristo.” 

All is not lost here, however.  She does a few things right.  The second sentence ends with the closing punctuation inside the quotation mark, something which most of her peers do not understand, and the next to last sentence includes the words “would have,” which many of her peers would have written as “would of.”  And, although it’s fairly simplistic and has a couple of errors, she does show a decent understanding of a difficult passage. 

Most importantly, though, when I gave this back to her and said that it needed to be revised and fixed, she cheerfully did so, taking all my advice into account, and quickly resubmitted a much improved paper.  Such a mature work ethic is practically a guarantee of success, and will eventually get her to where she needs to be.  Writing well may not foster character, but character will help her work towards writing well.

Shakespeare Is Not “Old English”

A pet peeve: people constantly complain–students and adults alike–that they can’t understand Shakespeare because he wrote in “old English.”

No, he didn’t.  Shakespeare wrote in exactly the same modern English we still speak and write today.  He used a much larger vocabulary, tons of poetic phrasings and figures of speech, a lot of specialized references, and often simply waxed eloquent in his singularly elegant style, but his language was no different from ours.

I realize that when people call it “old English,” they mean precisely the aspects of Shakespeare’s language which I just mentioned, but still, the inaccuracy bugs me.  A little effort, time, and homework makes Shakespeare comprehensible and enjoyable, but actual old English is, practically, a foreign language.

Really.  Quick English lesson summary: The defining work of modern English is that of one of its earliest practitioners: Shakespeare.  Middle English (which could be dated very roughly from about 1000 AD to 1500 AD) is best exemplified by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Old English is illustrated best by the epic poem Beowulf

Shakespeare, as I said, can be read with a little effort.  In fact, most of us could understand most of his work right now with practically no assistance.

Chaucer, however, is usually “translated” into modern English when printed, as his vocabulary and spelling are so different from what we use today that much of it is very difficult to read.  A sample of the middle English text is below, with a modern equivalent to help. 

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Recommended Reading: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

I recently finished reading this to my younger children.  I’ve presented them with some challenging stories before, but I was outright flabbergasted at how intellectually mature this classic was.

Published in 1908, this British classic tells tales of four country friends–a rat, a mole, a badger, and (most famously) a rich, pompous, adventuresome toad.  These are no flat, stock children’s book characters.  They have enough neurotic vinegar in them to make the cast of Toy Story seem like The Waltons by comparison.  Not only do they have strikingly realistic personalities, but they behave in the ways that our grandparents did, ways that make us blush today.  They don’t hesitate to insult someone, calling a spade a spade when needed, they acknowledge violence as a normal way to deal with thugs, and differences between social classes aren’t treated at all as anything unusual–just another natural part of life. 

And yet, this world that often seems rough to our “modern sensibilities” is also markedly refined compared to most of our daily ditherings.  The Wind in the Willows is so thoroughly pastoral that it practically strives to be scripture on the subject, vying perhaps to sit next to Walden and The Boy Scout Handbook on my shelf.  One chapter, in fact, dreamily describes an episode where two lost characters in the woods encounter an ecstatic ancient spirit, whose communion is powerfully glorious.  Such seemingly pagan influences struck me as odd for a book coming from the Edwardian period, but it fits in without a ripple of real inappropriateness here, not blushing in its unabashed environmentalism. 

All this has just been prologue, though, for the thing that truly makes this masterpiece stand up and demand our attention is just how amazingly literary it is.  Continue reading

Sentence Diagramming: Huston For The Defense

Yesterday, a reader named Vicki posted the following comment under an old post of mine called, “On The Joy Of Sentence Diagramming:”

“I’m still not convinced that sentence diagramming is profitable. If the goal it communication, why does the student have to know that what he is saying is a noun or verb, etc… If a student can properly write a sentence, why does he have to know all of the parts of that sentence?? I just don’t get it. I think Grammar is old school, and is taught because it always has been taught. We need to think outside the box, and open our mind to teaching important things in schools, not just busy work. He says it makes him a better reader and writer? How?? How can knowing sentence structure in that depth do that? I am an engineer and a teacher. I just have never understood it all.”

My reply ran to several paragraphs, so I’m giving it its own space here.  I had more fun writing this than anything in quite a while, and I truly hope Vicki finds it to be useful:

Vicki, thank you so much for the honest, important questions; you bring up four thoughtful and valuable, but very different, issues here, so I’ll try to touch just briefly on each of them.

“why does the student have to know that what he is saying is a noun or verb, etc… If a student can properly write a sentence, why does he have to know all of the parts of that sentence??”   The best answer here has to do with learning things in depth, not just to the shallow “good enough” level that we can get away with it. The drastic simplification of all communication over the last century, even formal writing, should concern us. If we don’t even have the capacity to comprehend the deeper nuts and bolts of language, we’ll be short-changing our children and ourselves by a deprivation of the true power and beauty of one of humanity’s most fundamental and crucial skills. By your logic above, a grunt or belch is good enough if it gets a point across. This complaint is slightly related to the frequent question English teachers get about excessive “detail” in literature, which I recently discussed here.

“I think Grammar is old school, and is taught because it always has been taught.”  Why would you assume that? And why would that be a bad thing? Isn’t transmitting tradition a legitimate function of education? Hasn’t our heritage been good to us? Might it be a mistake to just chuck out anything that we no longer find easy to enjoy?

“We need to think outside the box, and open our mind to teaching important things in schools, not just busy work.” Aren’t these just clichés? Continue reading

“Thy” Son

A minor pet peeve: I cringe a little when someone in church ends a talk or a testimony with, “in the name of thy son, Jesus Christ, amen.” 

“Thy” son?  No…. Thy means your.  You would only use thy in a prayer, when you’re directly addressing God the Father, whose son Jesus is.  You shouldn’t say “thy son” at the end of a talk or testimony, because that would imply that Jesus is the son of all of us in your audience. 

On a completely unrelated subject, I’ve been thinking about maybe getting a life.

Star Wars Pun

Even in my long, storied career of making bad puns, this may well be the very worst:

Obi-want Kenobi and Lack Skywalker each got a chance to fight Dearth Vader.

 

My apologies.  This headache-inducer grew out of my attempt to illustrate to a class what “dearth” means.  I don’t think it was especially helpful.

“Take refuge in nature, labour, sleep, music, or human understanding”

“How intense can be the longing to escape from the emptiness and dullness of human verbosity, to take refuge in nature, apparently so inarticulate, or in the wordlessness of long, grinding labour, of sound sleep, of true music, or of a human understanding rendered speechless by emotion!”

–Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Blogjet d’art

The infancy of the electronic age has been accompanied by instant and ubiquitous prognosticating about the inevitable advent of online art.  What I wonder is this: when will the first great work of literature first appear online?  When scholars and schools of the future look back on the 21st century and study our contribution to the canon, will the early works of earthshattering, breathtaking prose have been things that appeared self-published online, or in an e-zine, or even, dare I wonder, on a blog?

When will a generation of writers break new ground in marrying the form of the medium to its content as, say, Dickens did with his serialized works, or Cervantes did when he wrote a second part to Don Quixote responding to unauthorized “sequels,” or Joyce did by integrating news headlines into Ulysses?  What will it look like when someone starts finding the perfect marriage of the World Wide Web’s visual layout and the untapped abilities of text that it might uncover?  When will we see a powerful vision of HTML and prosody commingled?  Will it be a cheap novelty at first?  Will it be scorned–or ignored–by the establishment, only to be appreciated by our grandchildren? 

Is it already out there?  Or will it somehow never be?  No, sooner or later, the Great American Blog will surface.  (Perhaps the Great American Text Message?  Or even the Great American Tweet?  OK, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) 

I’ve seen some wonderful writing online, but nothing that wouldn’t work just as well, or even better, on the printed page.  I don’t know exactly what I’m wishing for, but it’s more than just text in a fancy font or with some jazzy animation or backgrounds.  I guess that’s the thing about watershed events: you just can’t predict them until some genius has actually done it.  If you could, then it would already be done. 

So I’ll continue to wade through the Slough of Des-blog, seeking a great new work of literary achievement.  Until then, I can always read Shakespeare.

Recommended Reading: The Deluxe Transitive Vampire

14298980When I teach grammar, I try to come up with attention-grabbing example sentences.  The ones that come in textbooks are notoriously dull (“The person went to the place to get the thing.”), so I want to juice it up a bit and inject a bit of my trademarked brand of life into what most folks see as a dreadfully lame subject. 

Here are two examples of standard favorites in my classes:

I kicked the freshman. 

“Freshman” receives the action of the verb “kicked,” so it is the direct object.

I threw Paris Hilton a live grenade. 

What did I actually throw?  Paris Hilton?  Good gravy, no.  That would require touching her.  No, I threw a grenade.  That makes “grenade” the direct object.  Paris Hilton received the direct object, making her the indirect object.  And, hopefully, soon to be an irritating, repressed memory. 

This demonstration shares a bit of the twisted humor of Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s classic grammar “textbook,” The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed.  Gordon’s approach is to present clear, sprightly explications of general grammatical matters with examples that tend to be about supernatural, nocturnal creatures interacting in the prosaic lives of hapless mortals of a dizzying variety of idiosyncratic bents.  (The book never makes this explicit, but I suppose the title character is meant to represent the fact that a transitive verb, like a vampire, only functions when it has an object upon which to act.  Cute, yes?)

I labor intensively, ripping asunder the very dendrites of my brain in Herculean attempts to come up with more than few clever example sentences in class; Gordon has filled an entire book where every page presents at least a few laugh-out-loud such sentences.

Examples:

  • The robot designated the dentist his partner.
  • There are five more cupcakes than we have frosting for; I’ll leave them for that loner by the river.
  • Sophie, abandoning her rented canoe, exchanges pleasantries in the shade with a newt.
  • Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Mr. Sammler’s Planet

sammlerIt’s been a year since I read this review in City Journal of Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s 1970 masterpiece, Mr. Sammler’s Planet.  That’s how long something has to stand in line when it gets onto my to do list. 

This young curmudgeon loved every page.  The City Journal review lauds it largely for its precision in describing the squalid conditions of late-60’s/early 70’s New York City.  The first chapter, especially, is a delicately, surgically rendered reproduction of a previously fine world that’s fraying, splitting, flying to pieces. 

After about fifty pages I regretted reading a library copy and not buying it, because almost every page had these exquisitely quotable axioms about life that seemed like natural landmarks.  I wanted to underline them and keep them.  They belong in a museum.  Here’s just one: “Perhaps when people are so desperately impotent they play that instrument, the personality, louder and wilder.”  Yes. 

This is also the most literate, philosophical book I’ve ever read.  Usages of classic literature appear almost as frequently as the word “the.”  Not just references–usages.  No name dropping, but elements of everything from Norse mythology to Ulysses integrated into the text, gorgeously. 

That actually leads to the book’s only soft spot: Continue reading

Reviewed: James Joyce, by Edna O’Brien

joyceThis little biography is no encyclopedia entry on James Joyce, no dry recitation of the vital statistics, listing facts and just getting the job done.  Irish writer Edna O’Brien loves James Joyce, may well be in love with him, and that worshipful adoration shines on every page of her story of his life. 

O’Brien frequently quotes critics of Joyce’s, then skewers their interpretations with the defensiveness of a mother bear protecting her cub.  This emotionally invested element is part of what makes James Joyce such a refreshing work. 

The other major factor in its success is O’Brien’s writing: she’s no mere dispassionate acolyte, but a full-blown disciple.  Her style is fiercely tempered in the crucible of her master.  O’Brien’s prose is a gorgeous, flowing fountain of wordplay, a worthy tribute to Joyce and the only truly appropriate vehicle for telling his story.  Though she rarely quotes him directly, she alludes to his language often, weaving it into the fabric of her own tapestry. 

Consider this bit of O’Brien, waxing poetic about Joyce’s composition:

to grind up words in order to extract their substance, or to graft one on to another to  create crossbreeds and unknown variations, to marry sounds which were not usually joined; assembling and dissembling, forever.

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