Teachers at Work

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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.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 8th 2012, 1:06 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Yay! My story is similar to yours, except that I've been an editor. People just naturally assume that I share their various outrages about whatever it is that's bugging them. Not so much. Tho I have editing peers who go apoplectic, or at least pretend to, upon encountering some sort of deviation from their personal take on "the rules." Yet of course I do police at least A set of rules as part of my job.
Tuesday May 8th 2012, 5:19 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
I just wish people would learn the difference between grammar, spelling, and style issues.

The first is serious, the second far less so, and the third isn't even constant across publications (Oxord comma? Forbidden as often as required, and one man's underlining is another's italics).

If we taught a small amount of crucial things and eased up variation, we'd all (well, most of us) be happier.
Tuesday May 8th 2012, 7:46 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
My take on your issue, is, YES, grammar and spelling are important in written communication.
And from your elevated professorial position in the heirarchy of education, it's your extensive knowledge that is your downfall.
As a retired physician, I don't suffer that danger, because I am still learning the rules at age 82! I only discovered the Oxford Comma last year in reading these columns in Visual Thesaurus.
Tuesday May 8th 2012, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
Laxity? Our gramatical colons need a laxative. Teaching kids not to use the most egregious errors(probably more manageable) in both speech and writing might be more useful. As long as the teacher does not come off like a TV game show host with a purported inteliigence. After all, you do have the answers.
Tuesday May 8th 2012, 8:50 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
That "Text Speak" word is a nice new term. Thanks for that.
I am not an English major, however I do grade science class lab reports regularly. Overall this "Text Speak" generation's aptitude for writing English sentence correctly has decreases.
Students feel it is a wastage of time and boring issue. Weather you have written your words with correct English spelling and punctuation mark do not matter. What matters to them is their involvement and engagement in a task. Expression is not a factor rather intention is a super factor here. I feel frustrated in grading those reports, but we do not have lots of choices in this digital era.
Actually, allowing students/teenagers (all ages now)to use those — compendium, short-cuts, full of abbreviated terms and symbols as their communication elements is turning the so called civilization wheel towards Greek era. We are all alpha, beta, gamma...
Tuesday May 8th 2012, 9:28 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
I agree with Karen D. I edit in a global corporate setting, and much of the content I must correct was written by those whose first language is not English. Knowing the language and being a good writer are two different things, however. Some people just don't work hard enough at getting their thoughts in order once they have written their rough draft. Once we get past those issues, there is maintaining consistency within our corporate style.

We live in interesting times when so many things are changing before our eyes, and that includes how we speak and write. I was an "early adopter" of "hopefully." I used to write "e-mail" and have recently accepted that "email" is what it has become. And while the Oxford comma can be dropped in most cases without the loss of clarity, sometimes it is absolutely required. We must be reasonable, flexible, and willing to accept the changes while maintaining propriety and consistency. No two of us who have been called upon to correct other people's mistakes will do it exactly the same way.

No matter how much things change, however, it is still true that these skills will be important to today's students when they go on to earn a living. Good speaking and writing skills will take them higher up the ladder of whatever career they choose.
Tuesday May 8th 2012, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Timothy O.
One thing I have learned is that most of these "rules" are mostly arbitrary, and worse, subject to change over time. There is, for example, absolutely no real reason to not split an infinitive or to substitute "as" for "like" in every comparison. When I was growing up, I was told to eschew "different than" except where absolutely necessary. Now it is commonplace, and I sometimes think "different from" will soon become the aberration. I learned the Oxford Comma, then had it beaten out of me in journalism and advertising writing. I have been told that my insistence that a gerund is a gerund and not a participle is "old fashioned" and "too high-falutin'" for this modern world.

For me, simplicity seems best. I will recast a sentence before going with one that might cause a reader to question whether I've used correct grammar. As Rudolph Flesch said so well, nobody is offended by simplicity, and you catch far more fish with it.
Friday May 11th 2012, 3:20 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I do believe that Timothy O has hit the nail on the head here. To extend his own experiences to that of the beleaguered teacher (with or without pantyhose)it comes down to teaching how to use words in a clear and unambiguous way and how best to express what you want to say without causing confusion. Of course, this means teaching grammar - except that you don't actually need to teach it as grammar, of course. As a separate skill set it will get a few enthusiasts, but not many. As a skill to aid effective communication the fan group will grow. But 15 year olds are, well, 15 and we just have to work through the treacle and try not to be too condescending when we smile and say 'you'll thank me one day'.
Wednesday May 16th 2012, 6:48 PM
Comment by: surya T. (flint, MI)
I enjoy when other people write,but seldom write my comments because I am always unsure about my punctuation and grammar.My mother tongue is not English yet,I love the language I.e English so much.
Wednesday May 23rd 2012, 8:16 PM
Comment by: celeste W. (Monterey, CA)
Just being a lover of the english language... Each day I learn the beauty, the nobility, the genius, and yes, the gentility of it. (I must look up the Oxford comma) ^_^

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