Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Stop the Madness: A Plea for Grammar Laxity
A well-meaning friend has done it once again: this time, I'm tagged on Facebook on a photo that pokes fun at "Grammar Nazis." In the past, I've been the recipient of grammar manuals (I received two copies of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation when it was published) and gotten emails from strangers encouraging me to join a grammarians' mailing list. It's all very kind, of course, but the truth must out: I am not a grammarian. Nor a Grammar Nazi. I wouldn't even say I'm a Grammar Fiend.
In fact, the more I learn about grammar, the more I want to ask us all to relax a bit. While I, of course, find a certain level of self-satisfaction in correcting someone's grammar — indeed, as an English teacher, it is my professional obligation — I've come to feel that the insistence of our word-loving community that grammar is an absolute that must be mastered ultimately creates a sense of inferiority: in me, in others, and, worst of all, in my high school students. This drives them to turn away from writing, and that's creating a generational vacuum.
Here, I'll try to explain what I mean.
First, a Little Background.
I came to teaching English from a love of reading and books and plays, not from a desire to teach about the colon. My background in theatre left me better able to do a box step whilst throwing glitter than explain the various verb tenses. Still, once ensconced as an English teacher, as I wore out red pens too quickly, I became aware of just how deplorable my students' grammar skills were, and knew that their Science, Math, or Gym teachers weren't going to pick up that slack. And so it fell to me to cajole my students into mastering these skills.
This was not easy for me. Despite an M.A. in Teaching English, I had no formal training in grammar beyond elementary school lessons. (I soon realized that I was better off than my students, who had managed to arrive in 9th grade without any formal grammar training at all.) I am not a naturally good speller, and while I do love punctuation and sentence construction, I grew up with a number of habits that I was unaware were considered to be errors. These included using "hopefully" to mean "I hope" (which is apparently OK now, according to the Associated Press), dropping the Oxford comma (which I still feel is perfectly reasonable and have to remind myself not to do), and many more. I remember the first time I realized that the region where I grew up drops the "to be" form of the verb — I said "The car needs washed" instead of "The car needs to be washed." I realized this was wrong because an acquaintance gaped at me and said, "And they let you teach English!?"
Yes, they did. In fact, something weird happened when I became an English teacher. People started to defer to me and my grammar skills. Friends, especially new ones, would ask me how to spell things, or how to construct sentences. Proud of my new status, and desperately wanting not to appear wrong, I read up on grammar, and learned such things as when to use "fewer" and when to use "less." I may have gently corrected peoples' grammatical errors. It's possible I flinched when I heard a relative mention that the garden "needs watered."
I also started to teach grammar formally and grew increasingly militant about "the rules." I devised all kinds of lessons that were engaging and accessible, and expected my students to continue to practice the skills they were learning, especially in papers for my class. I was on a mission! Every one of my students would write with grammatical perfection!
And then I spent my 30th hour underlining or putting quotation marks around titles that had been left nekkid. I realized that if the test of a good lesson is that it empowers the student to use what he or she has learned, I was not teaching good lessons. My students, theoretically anyway, knew more grammatical rules than then had at the beginning of the year, but in practice, they were not employing them.
Discussions Ensued. Realizations Were Made.
Completely confused and conflicted about this problem, I asked my students why they didn't care more about grammar. I learned two things: First, my students did care, but they felt completely overwhelmed and incapable of overcoming their overwhelmedness, and, second, they felt that, honestly, seriously, when we came down to it, I was asking them to do something unnecessary.
Let's look at the latter reason first. They actually do have a valid point, in a way. It's not that I agree with them that grammar is unnecessary, because I do not think that is true, but I can see how from their perspective it seems that way. The majority of my students do not read much and rarely write unless directed to do so. We may not like this fact — and I don't — but my students are not very different from most teenagers these days. Like their peers, the vast majority of what my students compose is done in what I call "text speak" — a compendium of short-cuts, symbols and insistences that they are laughing out loud — in which traditional grammar rules have no place. (As an aside, I try my best to follow grammatical rules when texting, which I do frequently, and it is quite a pain in the patookus.) From this perspective, grammar seems persnickety and old-fashioned, like wearing pantyhose or calling someone on a landline to convey information.
Of course, this attitude has its roots in the first reason. Grammar is presented as a skill set that is only pass/fail: you either know and understand the interminable rules of putting words and punctuation together, or you do not. If you do, you are smart. If you don't, you're a dolt. Little allowance is made for building skills. Our culture of correctors and correctives wants 15-year-olds who don't know where a comma goes to feel ashamed.
What To Do?
Grammar is important to me, despite the above. I do want my students to know how to use words and punctuation correctly, especially as I increasingly feel chagrin upon noticing how rare these skills are becoming. (What can I say? I sometimes still wear pantyhose, too.) But I can't work with a group of students who panic at the mention of the word "capitalization" and celebrate writing plays because, as one said to me the other day, "You can't yell at me when my character doesn't use good grammar."
So I find myself choosing my battles. The titles thing I mentioned earlier? Well, I still insist on underlining and quotation marks, properly employed. Capitalization is a fairly noticeable error, so I zero in on that too, and I'd be failing my students if we didn't work on verb tense, the single most grievously ostracizing verbal grammatical mistake they make. ("Talk how you want," I say, "but know how to say it correctly if you want to do so.") I teach semi-colons because I like them, and I push hard for transitional words.
It's not that everything else doesn't matter. I still care, quite a bit actually, about homonyms, run-on sentences, and subject-verb agreements. But what I care about even more is that my students' voices aren't stifled. I want them to say and write what they need to express, without constant concern about where the comma goes, or if they should use "you" or "you all."
And frankly, I think we all need to start to feel this way. The little frisson of joy we get when we correct another's error is sweet, I suppose, but shutting down someone's means of expression and/or making them feel, well, like an idiot, isn't sweet at all. We need to loosen up. We all know what it's like to feel rushed as we write, and need to let go of the same demand for grammatical perfection in blog posts, texts, and emails that we demand, rightly, in printed works. Yes, proof before hitting send, but I know errors frequently escape even my second proofreading.
I've been making a specific effort to dial back my own demands and expectations. I stopped berating myself for sending a text with the wrong "they're" the other day, and I'm content to help my students celebrate something they did well in their writing along with small, attainable goals that will improve the shape of their writing. Yes, I would love to teach in a school where every child nails every rule every time…but then again, why would they need to be taught, if that were the case?
How about you? Are you a Grammar Nazi? If so, take pride in your skills, but contemplate whether that's who you want to be. After all, the Nazis were not popular folks.