Visits to this blog have come from 69 countries, from Azerbijian to Zambia, so I’m writing today a little word of compassion for those of you who have tried to master the American “r,” as my three-year-old granddaughter is trying to do. It is the last hurdle before her complete mastery of American consonants.
Today she said, “Huwwwy, huwwy, I’m widing my bike up the wamp.” Or, “Hurry, hurry, I’m riding my bike up the ramp.” This mouthful of consonant, in which the mouth closes down, the tongue closes off, and the the sound is swallowed, is also the last hurdle for people learning American English, or those of you who make us laugh by imitating us.
My sympathies. Please think of me as I try to make the South African click, the French “r,” the Arabic gutturals, and all those exotic phonetic birds which fly in our linguistic universe.
One purpose of standard language is the creation of a level playing field. It is the place where people get together who speak in vernaculars, with accents, and in specialized language.
An author from India may have won a prestigious prize, and sold millions of books, but if she speaks English the way she speaks at home, with all the local vocabulary, and influences from, say, Hindi, or Gujarati, I may not be able to understand her, yet I can read her books with ease because they are written in Standard English.
A doctor may speak in highly technical language in the operating room, but would speak in standard language to the patient’s family in the waiting room.
I had a student from a poor town in New Jersey who struggled when he tried to write in Standard English, and when he spoke, there were times when I could barely understand him. He told me he wanted to be a policeman, and that was a good moment to explain the purpose of standard language to him. “When you are a policemen, let’s say you go into an apartment and find a terrified mother and three children. You might speak in the language she would be most comfortable with, which might be your home vernacular. If you found a young man who was challenging you, you might pull out your best Standard English to show him who was boss. In court, you would use Standard English so you were sure everyone understood you.”
He got it, and understanding the purpose of standard language made it easier, he said, to focus on the forms of his writing.
After explaining a grammatical point to a student, it can help to do some exercises which will allow that point to solidify.
Purdue University has devised a set of grammar exercises which illustrate a series of grammatical entities or practices: count and noncount nouns, appositives, verb tenses, etc. The link is http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/5/.
Their site includes podcasts, power points, and a host of other teaching aids.
This blog, http://blogs.newsobserver.com/grammar/home, has a series of quizzes, called “Grammar Guide Quiz,” which have multiple choice exercises aimed at clearing up common misunderstandings, mainly semantic, such as the difference between “reign” and “rein” and “loath” and “loathe.” It’s superficial, quick, but I found that there were certain usages which I was not clear on, and it felt good to clear them up.
I have given my students the job of finding, within their lifetimes, a gender neutral pronoun other than the Queen’s one. Some suggestions have been thon, heer, ha, hs, hiser, shhe, and s/he. Though these might be logical, they don’t quite fit phonetically. We’ll have to try harder.
How would you rewrite the C. S. Lewis sentence cited in the blog Motivated Grammar in a post that discusses this issue at greater length, “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.” The same scene can be described without the their trap, but it would lose its style and spice.
There are band-aid fixes to this problem. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (1999) suggests avoiding the wordy choice of saying, over and over, he or she or him or her by turning a sentence into the plural: A doctor always bills his patients becomes Doctors always bill their patients. But I wouldn’t want to advise my students to turn all their general statements into plural sentences. We want them to use the widest possible stylistic palate, don’t we? Wouldn’t we like them to write as well as C. S. Lewis?
We must think further about this, but perhaps the solution is in our attitude — maybe they/them/their must join you/your/your as a plural and singular pronoun. At the very least, teachers should not react as if they had been shot in the heart when a student uses the singular they.
This is one of a perhaps infinite number of posts differentiating grammar from syntax. Our understanding of the two words is evolving. Grammar is a floppy term endowed with many meanings, depending on who is speaking, and in what context. It is the broader of the two terms, grammar and syntax.
Grammar has traditionally been considered the study of the rules of language usage. These rules ranged from “the subject must agree with the verb” to “don’t split an infinitive.” This method of studying language is called “prescriptive,” which tells how we ought to talk. Its companion method is called “descriptive,” which studies how we do talk.
The descriptive approach has won out for two reasons, the first of which is that some of the prescriptive rules are widely ignored. The form “There is a lot of reasons,” where the verb does not agree with the complement, has become common even among television announcers other linguistic authorities. Even highly educated English speakers might use the word “ain’t” from time to time.
The second reason is that language is constantly changing, even in its grammar. A previous post predicted that “Me and Mary are going to to the mall” will some day be considered correct. After all, we jettisoned “thee” and “thou,” and proper American pronunciation has changed from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s British tilt to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George Bush’s southern inclination. There is no way to either control or predict change in the basic practices of our language, so most linguists watch it all happen and make their pronouncements later.
There is, of course, a standard language, and all students should be taught to use it; but the standards are changing, and we should be aware of them and discuss them logically, not as if we had been stabbed in the heart, when a student says “There’s a lot of reasons why I wasn’t here on Monday.”
I am constantly apologizing to my students for the dumb rule that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, “Yes, that’s what I apologize for.” This makes no sense, and no wonder everyone ignores it.
But help is on the way — a move towards logical punctuation is gaining ground, as more and more people ignore the rule and place the punctuation where it makes more sense, “Yes, they are placing it here”. Trained (in the Pavlovian sense) to use the old-fashioned rule, this still looks odd to me, but I think I will soften my classroom bloviation to allow logic to prevail.
We can do that, you know.
Berit Aberg, an elementary school teacher from Skovde, Sweden, was one of 28 teachers to receive the European Union’s “Tongue Stories” award for highlighting linguistic diversity. A report in the local newspaper, The Local, wrote that, “… she said she was troubled by a trend she sees in her classroom of six to seven-year-olds: Too many young people fail to grasp the language basics they’ll need in order to succeed in their future.”
This is a key concern of many American teachers (at all levels, not just elementary) today as well. This post is does not propose an answer to why this is happening, but to pose the question. How could it be that students in many countries are not learning the “language basics” which are so important to their abilities to read, write, and speak, and thus to their future success?
Young students are always auditing themselves, judging their thoughts “right” and “wrong,” “acceptable” and “not acceptable.” This exercise frees their imaginations to indulge in a bit of wild creativity, which can bleed, in a milder form, into their essays.
A story needs characters, a location, and a conflict. Create three columns representing three characters. Going around the class, each student can supply a single characteristic for each character, the location where the three meet, and the problem which they are called upon to solve. Some major characteristics would be gender, size, profession, religion, nationality, maybe a personal quirk. You might end up with a 5′, Catholic, French, female lawyer with a stutter, a 6′, atheist, male, French soccer player who knits, and a 3′, agnostic, non-gendered alien who can see auras around peoples’ heads. The location where they meet might be a baseball game, and the problem they need to solve might be catching a fly ball heading in their direction.
After participating in establishing the characters, location, and conflict, students gather in groups of four or five and create a 2- or 3-paragraph story from this information. This takes fifteen or twenty minutes. Then the stories are read aloud.
This exercise is always fun, and can be offered at the end of a unit as a reward, or before tackling a new essay, when their writers’ blocks are active.
My prediction is that sentences using the grammar of ”Me and Mary went to the mall” will some day be considered the standard. The meaning of this sentence is clear, though some other permutations still would sound very strange, such as “Me is/am hungry.”
Discussion of this form, which is commonly used in everyday speech by many of my students, can illustrate the usefulness of a standard language and the inevitability of language change. In class, I explain that Standard English requires “Mary and I” as the subject. The vernacular is changing, but the standard is not, and academic and formal work must be written in Standard English.
My students’ children may declare this form the standard, long after I have gone to my grammatically correct reward. Though each generation assumes they have reached the peak of perfection, there have been seismic grammatical shifts in English over the centuries. It is hard to admit how arbitrary language is.
Parents and teachers from Shakespeare’s day would be appalled to hear what we are doing to their beloved language today. It’s just as well we won’t be around in four hundred years to find out what happened.