Grammar Groans

by Lee Shainen

IN THE AUGUST 12th edition of Parade, this headline
caught my eye: “Help for Failing English Students.” As an
English teacher, I was obliged to read on: “The ‘Microsoft
Encarta College Dictionary’ not only features new words, but
its publishers also asked college professors nationwide how
their students were doing with the words they already had.
The answer: Awful.” The paragraph-sized blurb ended with the
dictionary’s editor, Anne Soukharov, calling for a “national
conversation” about why students are failing at English.

Confidentially, I am often baffled by what Microsoft’s grammar
check finds right or wrong, and I am certainly troubled by
my students’ unquestioning trust in the correctness of their
checked papers (especially regarding spelling and usage).
When I show them that there are still mistakes, they look
at me in an impatient “get with it” way, as if I’m the one
with the problem for not agreeing with the software (sigh).
Perhaps we do need “help for failing English students.”

Perhaps Microsoft will wear that cape and costume and rescue
the students from our impoverished and overcrowded school
districts. Perhaps.

Look, I’m not so vain as to believe that the business community
has nothing to offer educators. With that in mind, I went
undercover. I attended a workshop put on by a corporate alliance
of Careertrack, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, and Fred Pryor
Seminars called “Mistake-free Grammar and Proofreading.” Their
brochure promised, “Get a firm grip on grammar rules, learn
to proofread with perfection–and enjoy yourself in the process,”
all in a one-day workshop! I had to know: could they deliver
the goods?

I was feeling a bit Robin Hood-ish as I took a front-row
seat armed with plenty of sharpened pencils. My first surprise
was that the room was filled: there were close to a hundred
participants, and, at $125 a head, I immediately realized,
for the ten thousandth time, I have no instincts for making
money. Why am I not teaching this seminar or ones like it?
The “trainer” admitted at the outset that she wasn’t an expert
in grammar, which I found strange, considering the hype, and
the small detail that this was a WORKSHOP ABOUT GRAMMAR! Well,
if Microsoft can write dictionaries ….

Meanwhile, I vowed to myself to keep my mouth shut and to
not blow my cover, but I didn’t last ten minutes before my
hand shot up to question the material presented.

“Excuse me, how come this section on run-ons doesn’t mention
fused sentences or comma splices?” Glare, some apologetic-dismissive
response, and the program continued. I vowed not to ask anymore

That worked until we came to the use of the colon. You must
understand I really like the colon. I have used it several
times in this article already. I might even do it again before
I’m through, but in the workbook there was no mention of using
a colon between independent clauses. I was appalled by the
omission. At that moment, I feared for the future, feared
for a language that might fall into the efficient hands of
corporations for streamlining and improving.

One thing was clear to me: if English teachers were successful
at teaching grammar, there wouldn’t be a job market for trainers
who think there is no difference between “all right” and “alright.”
I talked to people at the seminar and discovered that most
were there because their companies had sent them; however,
many were motivated to learn for personal as well as professional

Guess what? Those people learned. Big surprise. Were they
motivated to learn back in their school days? No. Was there
anything unique about how the material was being presented
at this workshop? No. The difference was that now they were
adults with a reason to know, even if it was simply to keep
their jobs.

Does that mean English teachers are off the hook? No. We
have to stop passing students who haven’t learned what they
need to know to move on. Otherwise, we are responsible for
further corporate incursions into our domain. But we are also
part of a culture that values televisions, cell phones, radios,
and computers over books. Our children learn language more
by hearing it than by reading it. That’s why “by and large”
becomes “by in large” (example from the Parade article).
This is an on-going cultural literacy shift. Look at e-mail:
speed and immediacy have triumphed over correctness and style.
What to do? How about what the National Writing Project has
been telling us to do for the past three decades? Write!

Teachers passionate about their own writing, connected with
other teachers who write, sharing resources and ideas about
teaching writing are the best answer we have. Put them in
classrooms of ten to fifteen students, in school districts
not obsessed with teaching for test results, and there would
be a literature Renaissance in this country. By the way, when
students start creating writing they care about, they will
also start caring about grammar. I guarantee it.

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