Teachers at Work

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Lessons from English 101

For four years, Nathan Bierma wrote the "On Language" column in the Chicago Tribune, covering English-language issues from etymology to usage in a highly engaging style. He has also taught courses in writing and speech as an adjunct professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In this essay, reprinted from his new collection of columns, The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English, Nathan reflects on the lessons he learned teaching English 101.

I taught English 101 for the first time in spring 2005. Here are six things I learned on the other side of the desk at my alma mater, Calvin College, a liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

1.  It only takes a few weeks to be able to identify each student's individual writing voice. Word choice, sentence length, comma use, vocabulary range and choice of topic all bear the fingerprint of the author. It helped that I had only 22 students, but I thought it would take all semester to recognize their distinct styles. When I could, I told them so, both to discourage plagiarism and to make the point that a discernible, seemingly audible voice can emerge when you put words on paper.

2.  There's no good way to talk about grammar to a generation that hasn't been taught it. Anytime I diagrammed a sentence or talked about relative clauses, I felt I was speaking a foreign language. Luckily, grammar was just one of four things I graded in assignments, along with content, structure, and style.

I could never go as far as former University of Illinois at Chicago dean Stanley Fish, who wrote in The New York Times in 2005 that his freshman writing course focused entirely on sentence structure. He assigned students to invent a language of their own and explain its grammar in terms of tense, singulars and plurals, subjects and objects, and so on. But that's not a writing class; that's a linguistics class. On the other hand, I'm not convinced, as are some English teachers I talked to, that the relationship between knowing grammatical terms and writing well is distant.

3.  Practicing what you teach confronts you with your own hypocrisy. No sooner did I scoff at my students' whining about their deadlines than I would start whining about my own deadlines. No sooner did I warn of excessive passive voice in a student's paper than my editor would tell me I was doing the same thing. I kept thinking to myself, "Writing would be so easy to teach if only I didn't have to do it myself."

4.  The comma is the most dastardly punctuation mark there is. In my students' work, commas were overused, underused, inserted superfluously, and omitted conspicuously. Sometimes explaining comma placement was straightforward, but other times I almost had to apologize for the density of the rules I was trying to teach: Put a comma after a conjunctive adverb ("However, it is reasonable ...") but not, as some students did, after a coordinating conjunction ("But, it is reasonable . . .") You try to explain that one. And after a while, I gave up pointing out that book titles are not considered appositive phrases enclosed by commas. I constantly came across constructions such as, "as it says in the book, Cross-Cultural Perspectives." I knew the comma didn't belong there, but I wasn't positive why it wasn't an appositive.

5. It's hard to be a descriptivist and an English 101 teacher at the same time. Descriptivist linguists say — and I'm convinced — that commanding people to write and speak in a certain way is an ill-intentioned and ineffective way to stabilize or change a language, and it usually is condescending. So while I was determined to enforce the writing rules of English 101, I explained this enforcement in the context of dialects.

Standard English, I said, was a dialect, appropriate in some settings (a college classroom) and inappropriate in others (a dorm room). And it's standard not because it's morally superior or more logical (it isn't always), but simply because it has been standardized, or agreed upon.

At times I wondered if this disclaimer dulled the students' response to my insistence on particulars — subject-verb agreement, dangling modifiers and so on. But I remain convinced that presenting Standard English as a dialect among other dialects is the best way to show the purpose of teaching it. We follow the rules of Standard English not to please the picky and pedantic, but to be intelligible and taken seriously in the settings where people speak it and write it.

6. Reading student papers can be rewarding as well as tedious. Some students' writing displayed good insight and fresh wording, and many seemed to engage and enjoy the readings I assigned them. That made the whole experience worth it.

Every time I teach English 101 I do with my course what I kept telling my students to do with their papers: revise, revise, revise.

Update: My professor Jim Vanden Bosch faithfully wrote me to say that in the ending example in #4 above, "the book title is an appositive, but it should be seen as a restrictive appositive because it provides essential identifying information. That's why the comma doesn't belong there."

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Monday December 28th 2009, 6:58 AM
Comment by: Annie G. (Gladwyne, PA)
I really enjoyed this essay, all the more because it reflects my own experience and opinions exactly! It seems to help (younger) students onto the road to understanding commas if I describe commas as breathing marks and encourage them to read the sentence aloud to see where being relaxed and clear mandates what in singing we call a luftpause, even if they don't actually take a breath. Your example of "the book, CROSS CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES" is perfect: where the name of the book is essential we don't pause and that becomes quite clear when the the sentence is said aloud. In general, I think anxious students use more commas. Is that because their breathing is more rapid?
Monday December 28th 2009, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Andrew R. (Asheville, NC)
I love the word "suborn" but would note that while the proper usage aims the subornation at the person, the most common use in modern courtroom drama is subornation of the act. That is, "suborn a witness" is rarely heard, while "suborn perjury" is a relatively common phrase.
Monday December 28th 2009, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
The author of Caught'ya, Grammar with a Giggle, Jane Kiester, has eight easy rules for comma use. I have taught them to ESL and junior high school students with considerable success. Check her out!
Monday December 28th 2009, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Josh G. (Corpus Christi, TX)
Dude, that, article, rocks!! Now if you'll excuse me, I've gotta get to class.
Monday December 28th 2009, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Rain
Thanks for explaining the restrictive appositive thing. I always use a comma before a book title, but I won't any more.
Monday December 28th 2009, 12:47 PM
Comment by: Julie S. (Columbia, SC)
Your essay is right on! Teaching English for 40 years to high school seniors and honors freshman certainly taught me patience. Your comment, "There's no good way to talk about grammar to a generation that hasn't been taught it. Anytime I diagrammed a sentence or talked about relative clauses, I felt I was speaking a foreign language," is interesting because that is exactly the case: Students are taught grammar in the foreign languages they take. Many times I would be explaining some concept in English when the light bulb would go on, and a student would voice that now he understood the grammar of the foreign language and of the English I was explaining.
Often I would take a little part of total grammar and usage to explain. For example, I really tried to get across the difference between the necessity of using a possessive subject before a gerund and whatever (nominative or objective) before a participle. At least while doing the exercises, the students understood; however, I have no idea if that translated into life-long usage and remembrances.
Of course, the biggest problem was comma splices. A few students just got the concept, others remained clueless no matter the explanation. The rewarding part was the successful conversion of many to the proper use of semi-colons. Then, unfortunately, some used semi-colons everywhere. Never could completely win without losing some.
Monday December 28th 2009, 1:13 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Thank you, Nathan!
This reflects my own experience and opinions, as well, but not because I am an English teacher (though if I got a do-over in life, I probably would be). I edit the writings of engineering types and non-native US English speakers for business (IT services), and run into the same kinds of problems. I am going to quote your statement, "We follow the rules of Standard English not to please the picky and pedantic, but to be intelligible and taken seriously in the settings where people speak it and write it." It will back up what I have been telling them all along: if our documents don't communicate in Standard (US) English, our US readers (the majority of our client base) will not take us--along with our IT capabilities--quite as seriously.
Monday December 28th 2009, 8:07 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I'm sure glad to know about the comma and the restrictive appositive!
Monday December 28th 2009, 10:30 PM
Comment by: scott M.
Perhaps because I depended on agents for jobs before I retired, I immediately found a compelling reason to insert a comma between "book" and "Cross-Cultural Perspectives", or any other title, for that matter. In show business,"book" is often used as a verb, as when a buyer asks an agent to book a particular act, or a performer asks an agent to book him/her more often. Without the comma, the phrase used as an example by Bierma reads "... book Cross-Cultural Perspectives.

Come to think of it, Cross Cultural Perspectives isn't a bad name for an improvisational comedy act. Cross Cultural Perspectives could probably be booked for lots of bookings, maybe even earn a place in the book "The Guinness Book of World Records."

OK, OK! I'm convinced! I'll book both of them!
Tuesday December 29th 2009, 8:59 AM
Comment by: Lisa C. (Brattleboro, VT)
Julie S--
I am right with you on the intractable problem of comma splices and the pleasure of seeing students learn how to use the semi-colon. I would urge you to rethink, however, your position on the possessive with gerund. Your students may have trouble retaining this because good writers have been violating this "rule" since at least the 19th century. You might want to read the helpful discussion in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.
Tuesday December 29th 2009, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Raleigh M. (Lakewood, CO)
Languages are protocols that facilitate inter-entity communication. One who fails to communicate in the receiver's protocol fails to transmit the intended information, but succeeds at transmitting an incapacity to communicate.
Tuesday December 29th 2009, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Raleigh M: possible misuse of comma after the word "information"!
Tuesday December 29th 2009, 4:44 PM
Comment by: James H. (Lakeside, CA)
I suppose writing is like gardening. Careful weeding, pruning and punctuation selection can transform a barren field of information into a knowledgeable and compelling discourse which is a delight to behold.
Tuesday December 29th 2009, 4:48 PM
Comment by: James H. (Lakeside, CA)
Or perhaps a piece of resistance.
Wednesday December 30th 2009, 7:10 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
I enjoyed reading your article and found it very much in agreement with my own thoughts.
By the way of grammar, I found some interesting thoughts on this website:


and one of them, indeed, talks about grammar:
“Study the grammar. This is probably the most important part of the language besides the vocabulary.”
And this is something I totally agree with (as I have been taught grammar myself; and I’m sure that learning a second or a third language was made easier by this very knowledge). The comment of Lisa C. (Brattleboro, VT) is a very healthy food for thought: One needs to know the rules first in order to break them, so that one knows what is it one breaks and for what purpose. So, can anyone explain to me why, these days, grammar is not taught in school?
Wednesday December 30th 2009, 6:07 PM
Comment by: James H. (Lakeside, CA)
Why is grammar not taught? I don't know.

The people I run across who show the least respect for punctuation and grammar have been company CEOs. Some mete out their directives and ideas so carelessly, all lower case and without punctuation, that I need to read them several times to make sure I've got their meaning. Some have paid writers on their staffs to ghostwrite regular news and trade columns, so it may appear they are highly skilled in writing and communication when in fact they are not. Obviously, their skills in communication are manifested in other ways.
Wednesday January 6th 2010, 7:36 PM
Comment by: WilliaMITCHELL (Saratoga Spr'gs.,, NY)
When I was in college, I dreaded and hated the essay paper, or ANY paper, so I thought girls ever did so well when it related to writing papers; so, since I was good in Math, I'd do their Math homework, and they would do my papers for me. Now, I like learning about English grammar and punctuation...using the ol' adage...if I knew then what I know now!!!! (or am I paraphrasing?)
...73 wsm
Thursday January 7th 2010, 1:08 AM
Comment by: Julie S. (Columbia, SC)
Lisa C.
I purchased and read the history part of the book you suggested. I am going to love the book. The major argument seems to be whether our study of grammar should be descriptive or prescriptive. I believe it should be a bit of both because languages are living, growing entities with a basic structure. However, back to those gerunds. (Yes, I know I used a fragment.) There is a major difference in meaning so often. I found this one on a web site: In which sentence would you say that the teacher dislikes the child?
The teacher dislikes the child whispering to his classmate.
The teacher dislikes the child’s whispering to his classmate.
I realize that most of the time the possessive rule doesn’t really matter and people get annoyed thinking about rules. However, sometimes there is a real difference in the meaning of the sentences.

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