Unfriendly Grammar: A Reply

On Monday, I published a letter from S, who feels the urge to delete friends from her social networks when they write updates full of grammatical errors.  You had lots of interesting responses.  Here’s mine.

Dear S,

I sympathize.  I really do.  But I can’t commiserate, I’m afraid.  I’ve had to work too hard to overcome the response you describe.

People have different priorities.  Those of us who prioritize grammar and clear communication may see it as an almost moral concern.  Believing oneself to be right about something often entails believing that one is, quite simply, better than those who don’t care about that thing.

However, a concern with correct grammar (and its relatives: sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, accurate vocabulary etc.)  is a fairly rarified preoccupation.  And those of us who are preoccupied with it are that way, not because we are better or smarter or right, but because we LIKE grammar.  Maybe not grammar rules (although some of us like those, too), but the effects of correct grammar.  We like the sound of a well-constructed sentence.  We like the clarity of the appropriate word.  Our ears are grated by faulty constructions.  We’ve probably read a lot of books, some of them very snooty books, and we have learned more or less osmotically what sounds right.

Here’s the thing, though.  What sounds right to me – and I am, as you may well know, OBSESSED with grammatical correctness – may in fact be incorrect in some circles.  For example, I know there are people who still castigate those who use “impact” as a verb.  A few years ago, I would have been among the castigators.  Now, I use it freely.  It’s useful, just as the verb “unfriend” (liberally used in your letter) is useful.

I nevertheless still cannot abide the usage “If I would have known….”  Why?  No reason.  It’s wrong, but no more wrong than plenty of other things, and the meaning is clear.    It just bothers me, especially when I hear a news reporter or an English teacher use it.  “Bothers me” is in fact much too mild: it makes me nuts.  So does the word “relatable” and the “its/it’s” confusion you mention.  Other stuff, not so much.

A colleague once sat in my office for almost half an hour, bemoaning her inability to get her students to stop writing sentences beginning with “This.”  As in, “Our house is on fire.  This is a problem.”  For some obscure reason, she hated such constructions.  Maybe she was right; I have no idea.  I certainly didn’t feel like getting into a lather over it, and was a bit disconcerted by how much it upset her.

I am sometimes unable to restrain myself from raging about a foible that peeves me.  However, I frequently hearken back to a conversation I had years ago with another colleague who had ventured into the world of internet dating.  She’d been communicating  with a man  whom she liked quite a lot.  “But I don’t think I can meet him,” she said.  “I’m not going to be able to date him.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because there are spelling and grammar errors in his emails,” she said.

Now, this woman was an English teacher.  I could certainly understand that clear writing was a priority for her.  Here’s the problem, though: that very morning, I had received an email from her that had three glaring errors in it, errors that just happened to fall into my wheelhouse of abominations.  I had to bite my tongue very hard, and I also formed a new opinion of her chances of finding happiness in love.

Mostly, though, it made me realize that my own ravings about misplaced modifiers and apostrophes in plurals might be undercut by lapses of my own, and that others might be thinking, “Well, you used ‘hopefully’ wrong last time we met.”

Which is to say: I try to maintain some humility about this.  I still get irritated, but if I need to run off at the mouth, I try to focus on something specific – my hatred of the use of “aggravate” to mean “irritate,” for example, which according to some people (including Charles Dickens) is not even wrong.  I try not to make sweeping judgements about people based on how well they spell or conjugate.   People make language errors for myriad reasons: dyslexia, limited education, second-language interference, innate ability…I may think less of someone whose poor grammar seems to arise from pure laziness, but I remind myself that, even if that’s the cause, others may judge me the same way for taking taxis when I could easily walk.

Here’s the truth: I enjoy the company of people who know how to use words.  Their ability to use words is one of the reasons I enjoy their company.  However, I enjoy other people for all sorts of other reasons.  Just because they don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect” doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer me.  In fact, while I was busy learning to nit-pick about grammar, they may have been off doing things that had actual constructive impacts on others’ lives.

Go easy on people.  In return, they just might go easy on you.

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What do you think of this advice?  Leave a comment below!

Have a question about language, teaching, learning, writing or other concerns that Auntie Siobhan can help you with?  Send it to me through my contact page.

Image by Shirley Booth

Unfriendly Grammar

The other day, I received a letter from a reader who is having an extreme emotional response to others’ bad grammar.  What should she do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan,

Would you consider writing a post on the issues of being an English teacher and social media user?

When I read status updates on Facebook and other social media sites, I actually want to unfriend people who make consistent grammatical errors. If anyone posts on my wall and uses “lol” or “its” instead of “it’s” (or worse, “it’s” instead of “its”) I have the great urge to delete the friend and the message. Is there something wrong with me?

Sometimes I want to write to friends and correct them but I know that I’d look like a pedantic twit if I did. I don’t mind the odd typo, but I get scared when it seems as though friends of mine don’t know how to write in English.

Remember in 1984, when they had Newspeak and they trimmed down the language? That could happen to our language! It’s losing its meaning.

It could be argued that if you can’t articulate a thought you are not having the thought. I don’t want our language to be reduced to lols.  I’ve only unfriended one person so far, but I’ve unsubscribed from many…I know that many great writers invented words, and that our language is always changing. I’m all for developments and new ways of expression, but I fear the sloppy use of language and shrinking meanings.

What should I do?  It’s really making me crazy.

Yours, S.

I’ve written a response, but haven’t yet sent it to S – I will publish it on Thursday.  In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.  Have  you ever had a similar urge?  Is bad grammar reason enough to unfriend someone in the social media world?  Let us know what you think.

Image by miamiamia

Pearls of Wisdom to Offer Students About Writing

There are five things that Rob Jenkins tells his composition students every semester.
  1. “If you think you won’t have to write anymore once you’re done with your English classes, you need to think again.”
  2. “If you think you’re going to be done with writing when you get out of college, you need to think again.”
  3. “Writing is not a magical ability that some people just have and others just don’t.”
  4. “If there is a secret to good writing, it is this: multiple drafts.”
  5. “Good writing comes from having more to say than you have space in which to say it, so that you’re forced to say it as well as possible.”

He elaborates on these in some detail in his post over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I intend to drop them on my students one at a time, as the occasion warrants.

Willing to Read and Write

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

 Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

Image by Peter Galbraith

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