Great Grammar Goof GIF

Actually, it’s a JPEG, but still…I could teach a whole year just on this:

Advertisements

G-H-O-T-I Spells Fish

It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to an entire series of recorded lectures, but last week I picked up Michael Drout’s A Way With Words III: Understanding Grammar at the library, and I was immediately enraptured.  I haven’t listened to anything else since, burning straight through the seven discs during my drive times this week, absorbing the whole eight hour extravaganza. 

Drout is one of the most personable speakers I’ve ever heard lecture; his humor, pop references, voices, and casual approach were always perfect: he could have been sitting right next to me.  The lectures were substantive, too.  Not only does he review the basics, with some twists, but he clearly explained some things that I’ve seen other teachers clumsily belabor. 

For example, when the sticky issue of the pronoun of indeterminate gender came up (using “he” or “she” when you don’t know if the subject being referenced is actually male or female, as in, “Any student who wants to get a good education should read his little heart out”), instead of resigning himself to the lame stand by of using an inappropriate “their” (it’s singular, not plural), and decisively rejecting such politically correct constructs as “s/he,” he announces a policy so catchy and utilitarian that I’ve wanted to shout it as a battle cry ever since: Pluralize the antecedent!  (Which would make my example from before into, “Any students who want to get a good education should read their little hearts out.”) 

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

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

Required Reading For Pedantic Sticklers

You must, must, must immediately check out this scorching bit of grammatical derring do by humorist Eric D. Snider.  Not only that, but you must then read all of the comments under it.  Next year, this will be required reading in all of my classes.  All good education more or less happens this way.

“Email English” Example

Perhaps I don’t do Facebook or Twitter because I’d obsessively demand proper grammar and punctuation at all times.  Shorthand conventions be darned; all written communication should conform to professional standards, I say! 

This morning I got the following email.  The author sent it to a girl’s math teacher, and copied it to me because she wanted her daughter to be able to come in to my class late. 

Mr. ________,

__________ is coming in to take that test when you two decided would be a good time.  Please give her a pass to Mr. Huston class she was worried about getting into his class.

Oh dear.  Awkward phrasing in the first sentence gives way to an outright atrocious second sentence, such as it is: a run-on with a missing possessive. 

 

On her signature line, I noticed that she works at a school.

G-H-O-T-I Spells “Fish”

droutIt’s been a long time since I’ve listened to an entire series of recorded lectures, but last week I picked up Michael Drout’s A Way With Words III: Understanding Grammar at the library, and I was immediately enraptured.  I haven’t listened to anything else since, burning straight through the seven discs during my drive times this week, absorbing the whole eight hour extravaganza. 

Drout is one of the most personable speakers I’ve ever heard lecture; his humor, pop references, voices, and casual approach were always perfect: he could have been sitting right next to me.  The lectures were substantive, too.  Not only does he review the basics, with some twists, but he clearly explained some things that I’ve seen other teachers clumsily belabor. 

For example, when the sticky issue of the pronoun of indeterminate gender came up (using “he” or “she” when you don’t know if the subject being referenced is actually male or female, as in, “Any student who wants to get a good education should read his little heart out”), instead of resigning himself to the lame stand by of using an inappropriate “their” (it’s singular, not plural), and decisively rejecting such politically correct constructs as “s/he,” he announces a policy so catchy and utilitarian that I’ve wanted to shout it as a battle cry ever since: Pluralize the antecedent!  (Which would make my example from before into, “Any students who want to get a good education should read their little hearts out.”) 

Ah, glorious.  I want that on T-shirts and posters.  I want to put on a mask and fight crime, with that as my rallying cry as I dash into a violent fray: Pluralize the antecedent!  Mel Gibson could paint half his face blue and ride in with that declaration ringing across the field. 

Continue reading

The Kind Of Day This Teacher Lives For

Friday was productive.  I didn’t plan anything special, but by about the middle of the day, I realized that it was a really good one. 

After a simple error identification and correction exercise on the projector for a warm up (courtesy of Yahoo!), most of my classes were studying Oedipus Rex, which I’d perform aloud as they read along and stop two or three times per page to summarize in my joking, pop-culture heavy style (“So Oedipus is getting all paranoid and Tiresias just keeps throwing down sarcastic one-liners,” or “‘Get hence, ye scurvy, pockmarked, wrathful knave’? I didn’t know Paris Hilton lived in ancient Greece!”).  Most of this goes over reasonably well.

The middle of the day was just a few minutes spent correcting an assignment from last week in class and a brief quiz over today’s Oedipus reading, then I checked that they had brought in novels for this quarter that fit my length and difficulty requirements (almost all did).  The last half hour was given to letting them read on their own (a grade being given for staying on task), and those without books were given the first chapter of Anna Karenina to copy–the rationale being that copying work of such terrific quality is a decent exercise in itself (a language arts version of tracing, really; an elementary activity which we too often ignore because it’s not jazzy enough for the postmodern classroom), it’s the only way most of them will ever get to encounter this famous classic (“Every happy family is alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”), and the farily boring nature of the work should be an incentive to bring a novel in next time (though this sometimes backfires: some of the lowest achievers–those who tend never to bring books–actually love basic skills work, cherishing its lack of higher thought and engagement.  Some remedial students would jump at the chance to copy the dictionary all day, every day, if it meant never having to think or do real work.). 

Anyway, it was during the silent reading time of one of these classes that, as Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute was playing over king.org (which my computer speakers waft into the room most days), I realized what a pleasantly productive day this was.  In class after class, nearly everybody was engaged in useful mental training.  Too many educrats these days chant their lemming mantra that a class must be noisy and rowdy to be learning something, but I find that kids today are overstimulated, and creating a calmer environment is a necessary antidote; if work is mature and challenging, they’ll usually respect it and rise to the occasion. 

Continue reading

On the Joy of Sentence Diagramming

diagram

I recently finished Tim Russert’s memoir, Big Russ & Me.  It was moving and thought provoking, as it involved so many important events of recent history, and vividly captured the mundane but surprisingly fascinating aspects of typical American life in decades not too long gone by, but decidedly alien to today. 

One quote that particularly struck me was this:

What I especially disliked was an exercise that still makes me cringe when I think of it: diagramming sentences.  “I don’t know why we have to do this,” I used to mutter under my breath.  I also complained about it to Sister Lucille, but only in private.  “Nobody will ever ask us to diagram a sentence,” I assured her.  I had no idea what adult life held in store for me, but I was pretty sure that this particular activity was not included.  And yet I have to admit that diagramming sentences made me a better reader, and, I hope, a better writer.  (133, emphasis added)

Continue reading

The Inner Stickler Hulk

Ever since the experiment, I’ve been on the run.  On the run from those who would put me away from society, and on the run from the monster inside that makes society hate me so. 

A few years ago, I conducted a scientific experiment on myself by reading Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book length rant wherein this proper British lady turns up her nose at the syntactical errors surrounding us.  Since that time, whenever I encounter such hostile grammatical slips, I transform.  A brutish beast that lurks deep within suddenly emerges in a violent spasm of rage and…I can’t control what it does.  My normally mild-mannered self is helplessly in the thrall of this rampaging textual vigilante.

Perhaps the first such occurrence was last summer at the gym.  A poster advertising a local chiropractor attempted to taunt and/or tantalize its potential clientele with the tagline: “It’s never to late to start.” 

And then the…thing…tore its way to the surface.  The poor-usage-intolerant mutant fumed, “‘Never to late’?!  Surely it means ‘never too late’!”  The beast wanted to call the number given on the poster and complain bitterly that an advertisement for the services of a health professional should itself be more professional.  Maybe fearing ridicule, my normal self prevailed in restraining the monster…barely…that first time.  Vindication for passive-aggressive weenies everywhere. 

But the control was not to last.  I remember each and every time I’ve seen an email from any administrator in a school–a school!–that has a mistake in usage.  For shame! I would cry as the primeival brute burst out and wreaked havoc on the offender. 

And just last week, at 7-11…a hand-written sign by the Slurpee machine said, “This cups for Slurpees only.”  At least they spelled the brand name “Slurpee” right.  But the creature within was confused at first as to where it should even direct its editorial vitriol: was “this” a hastily-scribbled substitute for “these,” or was a missing apostrophe in “cups” obscuring a reference to a specific size of cup?  Had a verb been supplied, informing us of the singular or plural nature of the intended pronoun, this mystery could have been resolved peacefully, and the SWAT team that finally drove me from the brittle remains of the convenience store needn’t have bothered the coroner’s office. 

But there is hope.  Most recently, I saw a teenager I know wearing a silk-screen T shirt memorializing a deceased friend.  On the back was a picture of the departed fellow, and the phrase, “always in good sprits.”  The ugly green monster that is, truly, never very far submerged to begin with wanted to accost the youngster and inquire what a “sprit” was, but knowing that such an outburst would be horrible beyond all comprehension, I successfully suppressed the urge.  It was the first such victory in a long time. 

But now, as I trudge along the side of a dreary interstate highway, somber piano theme music in the background, I can only wonder what will happen the next time I hear someone end a sentence with a preposition, or say “pronounciate” unironically.  Just thinking about it stirs bubbles in the brain, and I know that, sooner or later, the Inner Stickler Hulk will be loosed upon a functionally illiterate world once again, and savage things will be done…

Overused Prepositions and the Ubiquitous “On”

A linguistics professor I knew as an undergrad had a theory that in the future, all vowels would turn into the laziest possible sound–“uh.” His theory rested on the observation that language in cultures tends to devolve into simpler forms.

I’m reminded of that as I note one of my pet peeves: the generic application of prepositions in the speech of many Americans today.

First, consider the following phrases, ones so common that variants can be heard in nearly any setting, nearly any day: “He’s hatin’ on me” and “It’s cold up in here.” There are even two prepositions in the latter: up and in. The “on” is completely superfluous in the first, as is “up” in the second. Why are they there? They don’t add to the cadence of the statement, they serve no social function other than to mark the speaker as a rank and file member of America’s ignorant youth cult. Add to that the phrase “in here,” which is also mildly extraneous. Isn’t the location implied by the statement? If the speaker merely opined that “It’s cold,” would any of us, upon hearing, wonder what locale was being judged chilly? Siberia, perhaps?

Such bloated constructions have become the bread and butter of our pan-American dialect. No wonder editing is so hard to teach.

Even worse, let me draw your attention to the all-purpose preposition “on.” The dictionary tells us that it may well be used in a wide variety of situations, but does it bother anybody else that most people use it as their default choice?

Students tell me that they’ll do research “on” a topic, never the more specific “about” a topic. They get facts “on” the Internet, never “from” the Internet. They might copy and paste an entire essay “on” accident, but never the accurate (though still dishonest) “by” accident.” I even read a journal entry about “hanging out on the mall.” Egad! Has “at” been nefariously deleted from our collective vocabulary?

I’m not worried about society someday grunting to communicate. I’m saddened to live in one that has already abandoned its once-great appreciation for the nuances of our wonderful language.