As the semester opens, next week, I don’t know what to tell my students about punctuation. Authoritative books, such as A Writer’s Reference, The Everyday Writer, and the latest edition of the Modern Language Association handbook on my shelf, the 6th, have almost identical lists of rules about commas, for example, yet the series of punctuation articles recently published in The New York Times throw the rules in my source books into a cocked hat.
Which of these two examples is correct?
In my opinion this is correct./In my opinion, this is correct.
Frankly I don’t give a damn./Frankly, I don’t give a damn.
University of Delaware professor Ben Yagoda write in his recent NYT article, “A modifying or transitional phrase at the beginning of a sentence can be followed by a comma or not, depending on your personal style, the meaning of the particular sentence and the length of the phrase. So would you put a comma in the following sentences?
By this time tomorrow I’ll be in Poughkeepsie./Generally speaking the Republicans win the Western states./Late at night the visibility can get pretty bad.
There’s no right answer! It’s up to you!”
The reading diet of my freshman writing students consists of emails, Facebook, and snippets from blogs and yahoo. I don’t disparage this – they have been creative with language, and perhaps have established a personal style for extremely casual writing, but they cannot use this style in academic essays. They are in need of some parameters, some order, some discipline. Leaving punctuation “up to you” is a recipe for slush.
Professor Yagoda shies away from rules regarding some of the most basic comma practices. He writes: “Referring to the Philadelphia Phillies outfield as ‘Pence, Victorino and a left fielder-by-committee’ would be fine in [The New York Times] but not in The New Yorker, which would change it to “Pence, Victorino, and a left fielder-by-committee.” Notice the comma after Victorino, or not.
All three of my source books would deem the New Yorker version “correct.” A Writer’s Reference writes, “Use a comma between all items in a series” The Everyday Writer writes, “Use commas to separate items in a series,” The MLA Handbook writes “Use commas to separate words…in a series,” and gives this example: “Boccaccio’s tales have inspired plays, films, operas, and paintings” That series of nouns scans like “Pence, Victorino, and a left fielder-by-committee” to me.
Okay. Fine. What do I tell my students? Yagoda’s article shuns “precision and clarity” by using phrases such as “There’s no right answer! It’s up to you!”
The student’s ear is perhaps the best guide to good writing, but if he or she stumbles into an awkward or incomprehensible sentence, and has only the ear to depend upon, the corrected sentence may be equally awkward or incomprehensible. Freshmen need some rules. I tell them “When you write for The New Yorker or write a published novel, you can make your own rules. Let’s learn the rules first, then you can break them.”
Punctuation changes over time, so does syntax, accent, and every other aspect of language; but you have to start somewhere.
One student may use creative punctuation, and it may work. He may be the next e e cummings. Professor are not robots – we can act as editors. If I cannot understand what a student means, it’s time to go back to the book and review the rules. If the student’s prose soars, give her an A. This does not mean that “There’s no right answer! It’s up to you!” It means that once a student gets precision and clarity in the muscle memory of her brain, she can soar into her own space.
An observant British diplomat serving in India, Sir William Jones, observed in the late 18th century that many word roots in Sanskrit matched word roots in Greek and Latin, which led to further linguistics research which ultimately linked a stunningly large group of languages, from English to Finnish, to Sanskrit, all the Latin languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, etc.), the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Serbian), and a host of other languages, some living, some extinct.
Now there is disagreement over where the first language, called Proto Indo-European, or PIE, came from. The latest theory was proposed by a biologist, Dr. Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He takes the origins farther back than ever before, from 4,000 to 9,000 years ago. Since we are, so far, discussing theories which can never be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, there are arguments for at least these two theories, each having a claim that sounds reasonable to me.
I don’t see why the language could not have originated with pastoralists in what is now Turkey 9,000 years ago, and then been spread by chariot-driving conquerors from lands above the Black Sea 5,000 years later. We might be able to have our pie and eat it too.
My friend Lillian is a Chinese-American chef who has been living in China for the past few years. She has seen more of the country than most native Chinese as she has traveled from restaurant to restaurant, market to market, farm to farm, tea plantation to tea plantation. She is planning to write a book about China’s various farms (which I can’t wait to read.)
Last week she came to lunch on one of her whirlwind visits to New York, and she brought along a 15-year-old Chinese young woman, Yen, who is on her way to Pittsburgh to begin high school. She will live with 15 other young Chinese women, at least during her first year. We batted around this decision — was it best to live with other Chinese students, or should she jump head first into English? Her English was pretty good, but she had only been here for three days and was struggling to understand English spoken at our natural pace.
She picked at her lunch. There was no rice (I have since learned that I should ALWAYS serve rice to Chinese guests), but she soldiered her way through a popover, a roast beef sandwich which Lillian had picked up at a delicatessen, and a salad. I know enough about Chinese visitors to know that American food tastes bland almost to the point of being inedible sometimes, so I offered her some of the fruit salad, which she hadn’t touched yet. It consisted of small pieces of cantaloupe, raspberries, and blueberries.
I offered her a small piece of canteloupe which she regarded in the same way that I would look at the Chinese delicacy, fish eyes. But she ate it. ”It’s sweet,” she said, surprised. Then she tried the raspberry. “It’s — how do I say this — it’s, um, sour,” she said.
If a Chinese person doesn’t know what canteloupe is, you can assume similar distance between our ways and every other aspect of Chinese culture, including our language. You’ll have to go easy on your assumption that your Chinese guest will know how to greet a host and how to thank a host, how to shake hands, how to cross a street (the Chinese are astounded that cars stop for pedestrians, but might misjudge driver behavior and get in some trouble). Most young Chinese have never cleaned their room, washed their clothes, or cooked a meal for themselves. Their parents take care of all that so the children can study hard. My daughter teaches pre-school, and a two-and-a-half-year-old Chinese boy came to the school for the first time the other day who didn’t know how to use a fork or a spoon. His grandmother had always fed him.
Yen has had her first piece of canteloupe and her first raspberry. So far so good. She’ll have countless other sweet and sour experiences here in America. I wish her well. Now I would like to hear about the experiences of at least 15 young Americans who are studying in China.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa has sponsored an English-only bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s a dumb bill with unstated pernicious goals of racism and exclusion, but leave that aside for the moment. Rep. King said, “A common language is the most powerful unifying force known throughout history, throughout all humanity and all time. If (people) can’t communicate, they’re bound to separate.” The people in India, China, many African nations, the Quechua-Spanish nations of South America, Indonesia, and numerous other countries which have multiple languages might disagree on that statement. It is, at the very least, not a statement based on fact. Language differences might sow disunity, as Rep. King is doing in the U.S., but these nations have not been “bound to separate.” (The U.S. came close to separation without any linguistic involvement except perhaps the stigmatizing of peoples’ accents.)
More disturbing than that statement was his use of China as an example of linguistic unity “throughout history.” His report on the history of the “Chinese language” is riddled with the sorts of logical fallacies which result from not knowing what you are talking about. First of all, there is no language called “Chinese.” A person from Beijing cannot easily understand someone from Canton, Taiwan, or even Szechuan. There are also many tribal languages spoken in China. My Chinese friends tell me that the variances between, say, Beijing Mandarin and the languages spoken elsewhere are much greater than the languages of Texas and New York. In America, it is a matter of accent, but the differences are more pervasive in China. Any broad brush analogy between China and America, and ancient China with modern America, is bound to be fallacious. One has to be careful when comparing even England with America.
The Chinese alphabet is indeed a cleverly devised unifying tool unlike anything we have in the Western world. It is perhaps analogous to the sign language which Native America tribes used to communicate, since they could not understand each others’ languages. In our Western alphabets, a person must memorize the words house, casa, maison, spiti, and so on, in order to communicate the idea of “house” or “home.” Two Chinese citizens who cannot understand each other verbally can communicate through the symbol for house. The Google translation for “house” contains multiple entries, but one of them is 名词. A Frenchman and an American can say to each other over and over again “House,” “Maison” “House” “Maison” and never understand each other, but two Chinese can write down 名词 and communicate immediately.
I once asked several Chinese students to come to the board and write the symbols for various words. The rest of the Chinese students in the class enjoyed the display even more than the rest of us. The Taiwanese student used an extra slash or line to write her symbols, and the Beijing student had a different slant or a different interior relationship of strokes. They said in explanation that the Taiwanese student wrote with an “accent.” They could detect where the student was from by analyzing the symbolic depiction of certain concepts. This is an entertainment which no Western student could participate in. Writing “maison” instead of “house” does not provide any laughs at all.
I was amused by Rep. King’s turning to China as a template for the U.S. to follow. There are few Republicans indeed who would use a Communist government which dictates policy, including language policy, as our model.
Our ignorance of things Chinese is so great that politicians can grab onto fragments of truth and include them in their speeches unchallenged, because neither they nor their audiences know what the truth is. I stipulate right here that my knowledge of Chinese is very limited, but compared to Rep. King, I’m an encyclopedia.
So who has the upper hand in the world today? The Chinese or the Americans? I recently met Yen, a young Chinese woman who is beginning high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She will be living with 15 other young Chinese students. (They will soften the transition to the U.S. by employing a Taiwanese chef to cook their meals. It is very difficult for a Chinese person to become accustomed to the American kitchen.) She already speaks good English and, if the family plan is accomplished, will finish both high school and college in the U.S. There are tens of thousands of Chinese students like Yen studying in the U.S. today, and each will take back to China a bit of knowledge to share with their families, acquaintances, and colleagues. We, in the meantime, are entertaining each other with false stories about Chinese history and language, without the slightest clue what China is like.
One of my students once wrote an essay in which she claimed that if we limited the ability of ordinary citizens to purchase guns we would be “just like China.” I had no idea what being “just like China” would entail, so I asked her in what ways they would be similar. “Do you know a lot about China?” I asked her. She sheepishly cast her eyes down. She barely knew where it was. Such foolish bromides about gun control had become second nature in her family and her community (she was home schooled), and had the ring of truth to them. As my father remarked about one family’s annual reunions, “They get together once a year to increase their ignorance.”
We live awash in such ignorance at our peril.
Once again, English Only legislation is being introduced in the U.S. Congress, this time by Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Given the substantial number of serious problems faced by America now, this legislation should be viewed as a frivolous waste of time, but its deleterious effects go deeper than that. It denigrates and demeans the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S., most of whom are struggling to learn English, if for no other reason than that their futures will be much brighter if they do. All of their children learn English, and their grandchildren often don’t even speak the native language of their immigrant parents or grandparents (which is a problem from cultural and national security standpoints).
Let us begin by reviewing some of the provisions of the proposed legislation, which, thankfully, is not expected to pass.
§162. Preserving and enhancing the role of the official language
Representatives of the Federal Government shall have an affirmative obligation to preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the Federal Government. Such obligation shall include encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language.
Without defining what “encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language,” this provision has no meaning at all. The Federal Government already functions in English and no enhancement is needed. But “encouraging greater opportunities” can only mean establishing learning centers where immigrants can learn English, and providing a greater number of ESL teachers in schools. This would be a welcome and expensive addition to the federal budget, but increased funding for any kind of education is rejected by the very people who support English-only laws, so this provision is dead on arrival and not worth the paper it is written on.
§ 164. Uniform English language rule for naturalization
(a) UNIFORM LANGUAGE TESTING STANDARD.—All citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution.
Who could object to learning a bit about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Certainly not I. It is the principles enshrined in these documents which draw many immigrants to America in the first place. They have heard about equality of opportunity long before they ever tread our shores. But I wonder which parts of the Declaration of Independence would be considered especially important.
The respect paid to immigrants would be welcome. Prevention of immigration is one of the objections to King George’s rule: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…”
The final remonstrance (in a long list) against King George might seem, to the untutored immigrant, to clash with the basic declaration that “all men are created equal”: He has…endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. Would we then, in fairness, teach our new immigrants about the “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” which the U.S. government practiced against these “merciless Indian Savages” over the hundred and more years after we became independent? Who would fund the learning centers where immigrants were taught the archaic language of the Declaration of Independence, with its outdated vocabulary and punctuation?
Regarding the Constitution, we would be bound to alert new immigrants that some provisions of this document no longer apply, such as: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” Surely we would want to tell the new immigrants that this vile provision which resulted in escaped slaves being returned to their masters to endure legally sanctioned measures such as death was overturned later by the Supreme Court. Most damaging to the spirit of all men being “created equal” would be the provision which states: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” The Constitution tiptoes around the mention of slavery, but in this provision, counts slaves as three-fifths of a person, and does not include Indians at all. It does count indentured servants, who were usually white, as full people. That part, too, was later overturned, ultimately allowing Barack Obama to become president. Who would want three-fifths of a president?
Is this the image of America that we want to paint for new immigrants? Wouldn’t the economic, social, and cultural pressures to learn English lead them to a more accurate picture of modern America, and more facility in navigating such civic duties as voting and holding a job? Our own high school students have only a vague idea of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I wonder how many of them would pass the test given to immigrants.
Linguists almost universally oppose English-Only legislation, joined by many others; for example, the American Psychological Association’s web page contains an article opposing it. The abstract of the article states: “The scientific literature relevant to the arguments for and against the English-only movement is reviewed, to determine whether the Resolution Against English Only before the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) was supportable. Some of the misconceptions advanced by English-only advocates that affect the sociopsychological, educational, testing, and health-service delivery arenas are examined. It is argued that there is no support for English-only initiatives, and that the English-only movement can have negative consequences on psychosocial development, intergroup relations, academic achievement, and psychometric and health-service delivery systems for many American citizens and residents who are not proficient in English. The public interest is best served by affirming a position in opposition to English-only. English-only is socially divisive and poses a threat to the human welfare that psychologists espouse in the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists.” The full article can be found here.
Services affected by English-Only legislation would include: health, education and social welfare services, job training, translation assistance to crime victims and witnesses in court and administrative proceedings; voting assistance and ballots, drivers’ licensing exams, and AIDS prevention education. The sponsor of the present bill, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, suggests that its passage would alleviate the expense of providing interpreters and translators in hospitals, courts, and schools. Really? Does this mean that a person who does not speak English will not be helped to understand the proceedings in the court where he or she might be convicted of a crime? On the medical side, would a 911 operator or an EMT be allowed to speak in a language other than English? The present legislation specifically requires that entities from the federal government down to the smallest town must comply with federal law, and since local ambulance drivers and telephone operators for 911 are governmental entities, they might well be forbidden to speak anything but English. In the days of segregation, well within living memory, Black people were allowed to die if there was no hospital for Black people handy. That’s how the famous singer Bessie Smith died – she bled to death because the White hospitals wouldn’t take her in. Are we going to allow grotesque modern situations to refresh that memory?
Passage of an “English Only” ordinance by Florida’s Dade County in 1980, barring public funding of activities that involved the use of languages other than English, resulted in the cancellation of all multicultural events and bilingual services, ranging from directional signs in the public transit system to medical services at the county hospital. The absence of bilingual signage would not bode well for the tourism industry.
Librarians complain that English-only laws inhibit their ability to communicate with many of their clients.
The English-Only proponents are opposed to spending money on multi-lingual ballots, thus affecting the voting rights of immigrants. One Representative who urged the House of Representatives to reject the English-only measure wondered how we could enforce immigration laws if we were forbidden from communicating with the affected immigrants.
Learning English is a long process, especially for people with limited educational experience. They may be working at multiple jobs to support themselves or taking care of young children or other relatives. It could take them years to master the Constitution. A little patience should be in order while they acclimate themselves to a new country.
Some states have declared English their “official language,” but Hawaii has deemed both English and Hawaaian “official.” Will that now have to be overturned?
The English-only forces include a fringe of racists belonging to hate groups, and underlying all such legislation is a smug intolerance, at the very least. America would benefit more fully from initiatives in the other direction. How foolish, for example, that we had a severe shortage of Arabic-speaking citizens when we went to war in Iraq! It is the smug superiority of Americans such as Rep. King which created generations of Americans who do not speak the language of their immigrant parents or grandparents. In today’s interconnected world, we need to encourage multilingualism. It is good for the arts, business, diplomacy, education, and peace. Any efforts to intimidate Americans into speaking only English take us into isolation and dysfunction.
There is a deeper moral principle to be honored though. English as a language is one form of the glue that has always bound us together. This will not change. Relegating the many languages spoken among us to second-class status only causes division and rancor, not the unity which Americans since the Declaration of Independence have striven for. Immigrants come to America to live where the goal is equality of opportunity, and where that is concerned, we have walked the walk. We have had a Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who speaks English with a German accent, and a recent Chief of Staff of our Armed Forces, John Shalikashvili, spoke English with a Polish accent. We revere Lafayette and deTocqueville, who spoke English with a French accent, as American heroes, and the list of artists, writers, film makers, and musicians who took a while to become fluent in English is a very long one. These American giants all took a while to learn English, and they might have had mothers or other relatives who came to live here who never learned English at all. We don’t want to discourage the scientists who will take us to Mars or the musicians who lift our hearts to be discouraged from coming to our country because we don’t value their language. Bring on the bagels (Yiddish), ketchup (Chinese), chipmunks (Algonquin), soufflés (French), and all the rest! Hooray for America!