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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Each semester, while I was teaching, I found I had to spend some time within the first few classes on the problem of Engfish. The first assignments always came back in a sort of half-language carefully constructed to reveal nothing, commit to nothing, and generally avoid saying anything dangerous or objectionable.

Reading Maureen Dowd’s piece in the NYT today (sidenote: sometimes Dowd makes me nuts with her cleverness, sometime I wish I had written it myself), I realized that Engfish is exactly what we’ve been getting from Sarah Palin. No wonder that temptation to bang my head on the table felt familiar–I recognize it from the frustration of reading students’ first attempts at college-level academic writing.

And it makes me wish I could tell Palin the same thing I told them: You aren’t saying anything, and I strongly suspect it’s because you don’t care that much about the topic country/political situation. Caring about getting a good grade elected isn’t going to be enough to propel your writing speaking from “sounding academic political” to actually saying something. No, you’re going to have to figure out–and I’m not promising this will be quick or easy–what the hell you have to add to the conversation about this text the world. What are you passionate about? What are you committed to? What authority does that give you? Then you can get down to what you have to say, and you might be worth listening to.

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When I started teaching English, friends started apologizing for their grammar. Some got all apologetic about their emails, while others started correcting their grammar in-sentence as if they had some mental Word grammar-check turned on, and they couldn’t get it to quit putting green squiggly lines under half their sentences. [You’ll notice that my use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun in the previous sentence is grammatically correct because the subject of the sentence is plural. I nearly did a dance when Facebook worked to correct this.]

Having never (I hope!) corrected anyone’s grammar in a casual, non-academic setting without being specifically asked to do so, I was mildly offended at this manifestation of our cultural stereotypes of English teachers. Here, in brief, is the minor rant I’ve either given or been tempted to give in response to this unwarranted defensiveness:

Don’t apologize to me. You’re not turning in a paper. You’re not my student. I’m not grading you, and speaking grammatically correctly is not always situation-appropriate. Humor, comfort, familiarity, and efficiency often call for relaxed grammar rules. Language should be appropriate to its context; it’s just as inappropriate to use correct capitalization and full punctuation in instant messages as it is to use the phrase “wot R U up 2” in an email to an instructor. Granted, the consequences will be different: one will make your correspondent cite your usage repeatedly in conversations about the decline of civilization, while the other will make your correspondent laugh at you, albeit briefly. Guess which is which.

The trick is being able to distinguish; errors in this area are not so much an indicator of that nebulous evil, “bad grammar,” but of that much more nebulous issue, wrong grammar. People who are really good at communicating do not have “perfect grammar.” Instead, they have a much more complex set of skills that involves learning the rules of a specific discourse community (a phrase hijacked from the discourse community of Composition & Rhetoric studies, but one I find tremendously productive), learning to follow those rules, and then determining which discourse community one is operating in at any given time. These require a lot more careful observation and shrewd imitation than diagramming sentences.

Not that I’m ripping on diagramming sentences. Go, diagram sentences! I expect graphics demonstrating your diagramming skillz in the comments. In fact, I will offer a luxury Corey-diagrammed sentence to anyone who leaves me his or her own. If it’s really pretty, I may even get ambitious and send you a book about it, just to keep my English teacher cred and lighten that bookshelf.

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