Tomorrow is National Grammar Day in the United States.
I thought I would share some real examples of email communications that I have received over the last 12 months from first year college students.
Please know my intention is not to poke fun at my former students. I respect them and see so much growth during the course of one semester. But I am ashamed of our nation’s education system because I receive communications from students that are peppered with errors like this all of the time. It’s time to pay attention to our children. If we don’t teach our kids to be solid writers, if we don’t give them the skills they need to read and write masterfully, they aren’t going to be competitive in this world which is becoming increasingly reliant on professional international communications.
7 Things That Can Interrupt Solid Grammar
3: Pushing SEND too quickly.
6: Missing the bus.
Which one is your favorite?Do you think this is funny or sad? Do me a favor, will ya? Show me your grammar skills. Pick one of these messages and fix everything that’s wrong with it. Make it pretty. Please?
About a week ago, everyone in my neighborhood received this green postcard from the newly opened Huntington Learning Center. Very eye-catching.
Truth be told, normal people probably tossed it right into the recycle bin. But because I read anything and everything of/or related to education, I flipped over the card. And I proceeded to do a little dance. Because I knew I had a blog.
Here is the back of the card. Can you spot the error?
What? What do you mean you don’t see it?
Don’t worry, you are not alone. Almost no-one catches this error. In fact, it has gotten so that this “error” isn’t really considered an error at all. So today’s “Who-Gives-A Crap” moment is brought to you courtesy of this twit.
For those of you who are still looking at the postcard going: “I still don’t see the problem,” don’t be ashamed.
The problem is in the sentence:
Help your child learn skills they’ll use all year.
The issue is that “child” is singular. How many kids? Unless you also have a secret love-child unbeknownst to your wife, the answer is one.
But the folks at Huntington linked that singular child to the pronoun “they.”
Whaaaat? Where did all those extra kids come from? I thought there was only one kid.
To be sure, a person can deploy the “singular-they” in his or her speech, and it will likely pass without objection. People do this all the time. Spoken language is more casual than written language because of the speed at which we speak. We can forgive our newscasters, our reality TV hosts, our Snookis.
(We can forgive Snooki, right?)
But careful writers try to avoid using the “singular-they” whenever possible.
I asked someone – anyone – to show me a page from a Style Book that says it is correct – even acceptable – to use this construction. Mike Workman showed up at Grandma’s and declared:
I figured someone might say language is always changing and the non-gender specific use of the word “they” is just easier. It sounds more natural, and we don’t have to fuss with any of that “he/she” stuff. But I didn’t expect someone to tell me that “most style guides accept ‘they’ as a gender neutral collective noun that could also be used as a singular noun.”
Throughout the thread, Mike kept insisting that it was fine to use “singular-they.” He quoted famous authors who had done so from Shakespeare all the way up to the 1930’s. I gritted my teeth. To me, all that meant was that famous, dead authors made errors that, sadly, went into their books. (It seemed unfortunate that those great authors didn’t have better copy editors.)
Every time Mike said it was okay to use the “singular-they,” I kept thinking: Eating with our hands seemed more natural than using cutlery until someone taught us how to use forks and knives, no? I felt like I was getting linguistic advice from a Deadhead who had eaten way too many ‘shrooms. His message seemed to be: “Oh go ahead, it’s all right – nobody cares – do whatever you want, dude!”
So I went looking for these sources to which Mike was referring. (Because I am that geeky.)
And, frankly, because I was scared that I have been teaching it wrong.
And then, Charles Young showed up, my knight in shining armor. Or my Grammar Geek in white underpants. It didn’t matter. He swooped in to rescue me. He parried Mike Workman with his linguistic sword:
Okay, so I didn’t totally understand Charles, but I knew he was trying to agree with me. In a really fancy way.
Fifty comments later, Mike and Charles were having a serious cyber fist-fight. Each man was equally passionate about his (their?) love for me feelings about the use of “singular-they.” One man said, “Yea!” The other said, “Absolutely no friggin’ way.”
I figured things would die down at Grandma’s. I went to bed. And then I went away for the entire weekend. And when I came home, I saw the thread was still going strong!
At post 192, people were beginning to wonder if the thread would ever end. I thought I might be blocked from the group for causing such dissension among the ranks.
It was a runaway train. I had to try to stop it.
I left “Grandma’s” again, thinking: What is an English adjunct to do? I mean, I understand Mike’s point. The whole he/she thing is really cumbersome, and didn’t the lucky recipients of those shiny green postcards completely understand the intended meaning? I mean, we knew what we were being offered, right? So what’s the harm?
Well, here’s my issue. This place offers tutoring for SAT testing. And, as of today, if the following fill-in-the blank question showed up on the SATs —
Help your child learn skills ______ will use all year long.
— and the possible choices were:
(C) he or she
(D) who friggin’ cares?
as it stands right now, choice (A) would be considered sexist; (B) would be considered an example of poor agreement, and (C) would be considered the correct answer. Although I recognize, at this point, most of you are leaning strongly toward choice (D).
I discussed this with two Advanced Placement high school English teachers and Most Excellent College Department Chairperson: a veritable holy trinity of English educators. And while Mike kept insisting the practice of using “they” is “widely accepted,” I was unable to find one single Style Book that stated it was “grammatically correct” to use this construction in formal essay writing.
I mean, some of us have to teach Comp-101. We have to explain the rules.
The nuances of language are complicated. It isn’t easy to master all these rules, especially the ones that feel archaic and forced. Come September, I am going to explain to my students that they need to have a speaking vocabulary and a writing vocabulary. I am going to try to convince them that we have to be poly-lingual. We need to know how to speak one way to friends and another way to teachers. We may write one way in texts, but (hopefully) that is different from the way we correspond to our parents and educators. On Twitter we have to Tweet it in under 140 characters, which requires a lot of creative abbreviation that would not be acceptable in a formal paper. Ever. The reality is, each of us needs to be literate in every one of these vocabularies (and others, too). We all need to be able to move between these worlds effortlessly and with expertise.
Call me old-fashioned, but until the folks at the Modern Language Association tell me otherwise, “singular-they” shall be considered sloppy usage.
Excited by my epiphany, I decided to pop in to “Grandma’s” and – to my horror – the thread was still going strong with over 400 comments! And even though I totally wanted some of the cookies that I knew were baking in the oven, I turned my back on “Grandma’s” house. It was getting ugly in there. I’m telling you, they were bringing out the Bazookas. And I don’t mean the bubble gum. Who’da thunk I’d get so much mileage outta dat ‘they’ question?
Do I need to tell the folks at The Huntington Learning Center about this?And seriously, what do you think they’ll say? Did anyone even make it to the bottom of this post?
The other day I saw a sign that read: “Free Babies Clinic.”
Which I thought was weird.
It was a warm day, and I imagined folks handing out babies like ice cream cones.
What exactly is going on? I wondered.
But as I got closer, I saw that the sign was actually advertising a “Free Rabies Clinic,” which made me wonder: Are we giving people rabies these days? And who would want that? Even for free?
I kind of remember A “very special” Little House on The Prairie episode where Mary or Half-Pint or Carrie (or maybe it was the Jack, the dog?) got bitten by something – a raccoon or a bat – and Ma and Pa and Doc were pretty freaked out, and Pa had to saddle up the horses and ride all the way to Mancato to get… um, I don’t know. Special shots? Pills? Now that I think about it, maybe Pa just had to shoot the dog.
I also might have completely fabricated that whole thing.
A few days later, as the stars aligned in the universe, I stumbled across the following video which features a child fondling a freshly killed squirrel, and I wondered: Have we stopped completely worrying about rabies to the point that we are now allowing our children to carry glorified rats wild animals around and snuggle them?
Don’t get me wrong. The video is fabulously, adorably morbid.
And I’m guessing this dad just got caught up in the moment the way his daughter did.
It is also probably why the aforementioned father repeatedly stresses the need for his wee dead animal lover to come in and take a bath.
I’m thinking little Thea might grow up to be a fabulous doctor. Look how caring she is.
Other options include taxidermist or mortician.
It’s good to have options.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. It’s Friday. See where poor eyesight and bad signage leads me? Tell me something you saw this week. Or thought you saw.
This one comes to me from a College-Instructor-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, for reasons that shall become obvious. It is hilarious and awful all at the same time.
To: My Professor Subject: Droped
I appologiz for not being in class the last and past week. But there is alot of stress put on me by other classes i can’t find myself a way to get to school on time for ur class. I know the matirial and everything is starting to let up. So i ask u to plez let me bake into the class. i promis to show up for the rest of the classes 🙁
Sincerely, Goin’ Nowhere Fast
In this horrendous wonderful day and age, where we can reach out and touch someone via text or email, college educators receive hellish quality correspondence like this all of the time.
All. Of. The. Time.
The lucky recipient of this email told me that this piece of correspondence – which arrived via email – was the first time he’d had contact with the student, and it came after his student had missed 12 out of 19 classes, two unit tests, and one quiz.
So think about it? How would you respond to an email like this?
Is this what we have come to with all of our short-cuts and abbreviations? Do teachers at the college level have to respond to emails and texts filled with errors like this?
Do you feel sorry for the kid? I mean, he just wants “bake into the class.”
Or would you just say nothing? Because the student has already been withdrawn and, clearly, he is already fried.
I sometimes wonder if parents know that their kids are communicating with their college professors like this. Seems we have to teach our children about how – sometimes – it is necessary to use different language to communicate to different audiences. About when it is appropriate to abbreviate and when it is necessary to use a more formal tone, proper grammar, and a spell checker. About when to use and refrain from using emoticons. According to Tim Elmore, today’s “screenagers” don’t get it. Or they get something else than us “old folks.”
A while ago, I decided that I would reward the person who made the 3,000th comment on my blog with a gift.
No, there is nothing significant about the number 3,000. I was obsessing over my stats just happened to notice that the number was fast approaching, and the time felt right.
I just wasn’t sure what I was going to offer up.
I figured as an English teacher, it would be most appropriate to offer up a book. But what to send?
And then the day came, and I saw who made that 3,000th comment, and everything became clear.
When I arrived in the bloggersphere last May, the very first person to welcome me was Carl D’Agostino. Carl helped me to network with some of his blogging buddies and he has been a steadfast follower ever since my very first post. In fact, no matter what time of day I post, I can pretty much count on Carl to be the first responder. If he lived closer to me, I would totally have him on my person to contact in an emergency list. He is that reliable and that fast.
I was thrilled when I saw that Carl made the 3,000th comment back in March. And because he is a former teacher, I offered him two book titles: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby (which he once confessed he’d not ever read) or Lynne Truss’ irreverent Eats, Shoot and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
Carl chose Truss’ hilarious book for grammar sticklers.
Then I told Carl there were strings attached to the gift.
I asked him if he would write a short response to the book in which he explained one thing that he enjoyed or learned which I could use in my blog.
Here is his response:
A Book Report by Carl D’Agostino on Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
If you see how the two pieces of punctuation in the above title affect understanding a great deal, you will enjoy this book and even learn some history. If you don’t see alternative meanings, you need to read this book. Truss says, “Punctuation gives sentences manners.” She explains how punctuation allows sentences to speak to us rather than merely appear before us.
I am glad Mrs. Schuls-Jacobson gave me this reading assignment (over spring break – sheesh).
Carl emailed me a great cartoon to accompany his response. Extra credit bonus points duly noted and awarded. Even if this illustration was created six years ago, it’s still funny. 😉
So thank you and congratulations to Carl! If you like his illustrations, you can find lots more of them here on his blog I Know I Made You Smile.
And to the rest of you, keep those comments coming. My blog will be a year old in May. I’ll probably have some other special surprise up my sleeve.
Unless it is really hot outside, and I’m not wearing sleeves. 😉
I got this little gem from a colleague who was in the midst of grading three sections of English 101 mid-term papers. Upon completing one full section of essays, he decided to reward himself.
(I usually reward myself by eating a bag of Snickers.)
Anyway, he found this little gem and sent this around via department mail:
My colleague took pause to wonder:
Do you think if we “sexed it up” (as the British say), we could ever get everyone to use it?
Let me be the first to say that I am a Grammar Pimp and proud of it.
I use Grammar all the time.
And she has never failed me.
Grammar is slick.
She is tireless, and she never lets me down.
She has never asked me for anything, and I have only benefited from my relationship with her.
Seriously, who wouldn’t want in on that kind of action?
Grammar, you have a bag full of tricks, you dirty girl.
You aren’t afraid of anything: noun-pronoun agreement, misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers. Colons don’t scare you and – Grammar, you little trollop – you love when people use their hyphens properly.
Yes you do.
Knowing Grammar is great.
But using Grammar is excellent.
I’m telling you: Use Grammar.
She wants you to.
If we approached grammar as if it were a reality TV show, do you think it would make kids more psyched to learn their grammar rules? Or would a whole bunch of teachers just get fired?
So this month I bopped in, said hello, made my way to the room where the warm massage table was waiting. I quickly disrobed, slid between the heated sheets, and spent a fabulous relaxing hour with Dean. (That sounds kind of naughty, but it wasn’t.)
I was so relaxed that I almost missed it.
I almost peed in my pants!
How much did I love that sign?
Those folks at Massage Envy not only got the sign right, but they had such a great sense of humor about the whole thing!
Plus they patiently waited for me to notice the sign – which had to be killing them.
I’m sure the girls up-front (not to mention the manager) wanted to smash my nose against it!
But they didn’t. They were professional and waited for me to notice it in my own good time.
And afterwards, they still let me eat a few fabulous dark chocolates wrapped in purple foil at the end of my session.
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