Who cares about grammar?

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I teach English to high schoolers. In addition to being able to understand standard English, I have to learn today’s “English” as butchered by today’s youth. Below is an actual e-mail, unedited, from a student who decided the third to last day of school was a good time to start worrying about her grade:

“Mr. flangan i did all my Assignments  that i was suppose to do but i got a chance to turn it like i think to but the other i think two wouldnt let me turn them in and im coming in tomorrow to come do my last final make up so when i come in im goin to stop bye ur class room and talk to you about it because i do want to pass your class and if they didnt go in i dont want to fail because of them two things that the computer wouldnt let turn in because i did them!!”

The student’s e-mail was indicative of the writing I face on a daily basis. My reply to this e-mail was in my typical terse style, which makes me well-loved by my students:

“When writing an e-mail to an English teacher or professor, please write properly. Your text is a terribly long run-on sentence, and I have no clue what you are talking about. If you can’t take the time to write in a way people can understand, I’m not going to take the time to decipher it. It would also be wise to correctly spell the name of the teacher to whom you are begging for assistance.”

When I peruse Facebook statuses, I come across gems like this one: “Happy Frist Birthday to my godson getting so big can not believe you are 1 years old are ready.” This is a scholarly status compared to the ones I see on my feed and on websites that specialize in Facebook fails.

And then I hear about three people who said comments that were considered controversial. According to the media, HilaryRosen believes housewives arent really working, Ozzie Guillen is a Communist, and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh really hates New England Patriots head coach BillBelichick.

But after reading all three of their comments, I stand perplexed as to how the media came to that conclusion based on their interpretation of the language. (There is a caveat here. Two of the instances were created by sports journalists, who can be the worst example of journalism sometimes.) I was listening to the Harbaugh interview on 98 Rock that morning, and I didn’t see this as malicious attack, but a reflective answer that is truthful based on logical reasoning.

If only it was true.

So I had come to a conclusion: The English language is dying. Pretty soon there will either be no need for English teachers like me, or we’ll have to learn this new bastardized language we call “English.”

I decided to ask a professor at my alma mater, the University of Maryland, about the declining standards of English, especially when it comes to people misconstruing comments. Certainly a scholar of the language would echo my lament.

“Rumors of the demise of English have been in circulation among the literature since at least the beginning of the 18th century, and it’s pretty clear that they have been consistently highly exaggerated,” said Michael Israel, associate professor of English language, in a e-mail responding to questions about the subject of our dying language.

“The idea that the language is in decline is not at all new, and it’s probably not going away any time soon either, but it has no real basis in objective fact either.”

I was highly disappointed with the response.There is a large contingent of people like me who believe our language is slowly dying. It can be seen in our youth as high schoolers who are considered talented and gifted, yet struggle to write coherently. Children cannot discern the difference between writing literary analysis and writing a text message. Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post wrote about it two years ago in an interesting column.

But Israel brought up a good point in that more and more people are speaking English now than ever before, which means there’s a higher proportion of people speaking and writing poorly.  The problem as Israel sees it lies in understanding the nuances of the language.

“While I’m not worried about the health of the language, I do worry about the health of our metalinguistic culture (if I can call it that) — that is, our traditions and practices for talking and thinking about language use,” he wrote. Because we are not learning about the history and tradition of language, as well as grammatical context, it’s becoming easier for people to abuse the language.

But what about the Internet, the bane of a high school English teacher? It gives students the power to copy and paste from Wikipedia and get terrible analysis from Answers.com. Worst of all, the Internet (as well as text messaging) has our young people using atrocious grammar and syntax. And because they are too young to know better, students believe it’s OK to write an essay on the rhetorical devices found in the Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar the same way they would text their friends or write a 140-character tweet.

What’s happening with the language?

“The important thing to recognize is that while the [Inter]net has brought us some startlingly new forums and genres of language use, it hasn’t really destroyed any of the old ones,” Israel wrote. “Journalists and academics continue to produce copy and write articles in good standard English. Novelists write great novels. Poets play with the language. Blogs and texts and tweets don’t diminish or destroy any of that.”

Clearly I’m not getting the support for my claim that the language is eroding.

But after I digested Israel’s comments and began to ponder on my own education, I have to agree with him. When I was in high school (which was about the time my students were born), writing and speaking well were pervasive problems, and we didn’t have text messaging or an influential Internet.

Prior to the Internet, our only experience with written English was in books, magazines, and newspapers – places where editors minimized errors and writers were schooled in grammar. Now we have unfiltered and unedited texts – millions of them – at our command. Maybe this increased visibility is where our curmudgeonly attitude about young people and their terrible writing derives from.

Did you notice that I just ended a sentence in a preposition, which for hundreds of years was considered bad form? Why was it so?  A noted British author believed the way Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote was an abuse of the language, so he ordained that terminal prepositions were bad. The idea that people are ruining the language is as old as the canonical texts we use to teach English. (By the way, its now okay to use terminal prepositions.)

There is hope for our language. Maryland is one of 45 states to adopt the Common Core Standards, a nationwide primary and secondary education framework aimed at making our youth college-ready. These standards are an improvement over the current reading/language arts standards used in Maryland in that they strengthen writing requirements as well as demand proficiency in speaking. The current standardized test is roughly 90 multiple-choice questions, whereas the proposed testing methods will include writing at least two essays and a measure of their speaking and listening ability.

English is an extremely hard language. I tell my students that it is a bastard language, comprised of the speak of every horde and culture that invaded England and void of the actual language of native Britons (who never assimilated and therefore kept their own language).

And it’s such a fluid language. Quick – if I ask you to find data from the last 20 years of standardized test scores in English, what are you going to do? That’s right, you’d Google it. You just used a proper noun as a verb. We do it all the time. A hundred years from now, some descendent of that cranky British guy will complain how we no longer use proper English words, like “tweet”, “lol,” and “wtf.” It’s constantly evolving and changing.

Don’t cry for our language. Unless you’re British, and then you believe that we Americans do not speak the same language as you. Take it from someone who majored in English, wrote for 10 years, and is now teaching the subject. It may seem like this country is committing the crime of illiteracy, but if we continue to fund the grammar police, justice will surely come soon enough.

3 thoughts on “Who cares about grammar?

  • July 13, 2012 at 6:02 PM

    Forget the technology. We can handle that.
    But how can we win against an Education Establishment that won’t teach phonics, won’t ask students to memorize correct spelling, and fights as theological principle against the teaching or learning of grammar?
    (I’m fascinated anybody thinks that CCC will do anything but make things worse, even while promising the moon. The usual ploy.)

  • July 12, 2012 at 8:56 PM

    “Comprise” as an intransitive verb?
    You can get away with anything, these days.

  • July 11, 2012 at 6:22 PM

    Lots of people care about grammar. Just search for “grammar blogs” and you’ll get thousands of hits. And there are numerous groups on Facebook about grammar, including one called “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar.” But I think it’s too late to slow down this train. Social media gives millions of people a potential audience of millions of people every day. And the so-called professional writers are no better at grammar than their readers. Because there are few (if any) editors working for newspapers, and most papers print more online than on paper, millions of people are subjected to daily abuse of the language. And it will not improve. It’s appalling the number of egregious errors today’s journalists make at the largest digital media company in the world.

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