Friday, October 14, 2011

Commas among the cannibals.

The first question is a little easier to answer.  I was taught that you never put a comma before and, that “, and” is redundant. I held onto this idea until we started teaching workshops.  I was taught that effect is always a now and affect is always a verb.  I first started to suspect otherwise when Jack Sparrow asked for his “affects” meaning his gun and stuff.  I was taught that the subject of a sentence is the first noun in the sentence, and that the topic of a sentence and the subject were the same thing.  I was taught that it was always “and I”, never “and me.”   I was taught that Dad and Mom, as well as Mother and Father, were always proper nouns and should always be capitalized.

The second question is harder.  We have been wrestling with the question of teaching grammar for the last few weeks.  If teaching correct grammar has no effect on writing, would teaching bad grammar have an effect?  There are some times when grammar is important because it affects meaning.  The example “Let’s eat Grandpa” vs “Let’s eat, Grandpa.”  Is an often used example, showing that commas are important.  However this example actually serves the opposite purpose.  What the Grandpa sentence actually shows is how unimportant commas are because NO ONE IS GOING TO THINK THAT YOU ARE SUGGESTING CANABALISM.  The comma, or lack of comma, does not confuse meaning. A better example is “the short bearded man” vs “the short, bearded man.”  The question “is the man short or is his beard short?” is answered by the comma placement. Some teachers teach that you should separate adjectives in a list with commas, but this example show how important it is to teach the actual rule. 
            Lets look at the examples above.  If I don’t put a comma before the and it rarely makes a difference in the meaning of a sentence but it could affect the rhythm.  It is important to know that the first noun in the sentence is not the subject when it comes to conjugating verbs.  In schools across the country, the president is speaking. If schools were the subject then the verb is should be are.  I don’t think mixing up me and I will ever cause confusion, but it is a pet peeve amoung grammarians. 
            So the question is, “is grammar important.” I would say academically, yes. Language is interesting and grammar is a key part of language.  Also, you can make cool work plays and puns if you are good at grammar.  Practically, less so.  If the goal is communication then it is important to remember that grammar serves communication.  People who put too much emphasis on “correct grammar,” often ignore the ideas being communicated.

"Superstition ain't the way"

We have already covered all of the superstitions that I have ever heard; don't start a sentence with a conjunction, don't end a sentence with a preposition, there is some magical maximum length for a sentence, or that one should always use a comma before "and."

I first heard that those were myths when I took AP English in high school. The first week was spent debunking those myths with examples of excellent writing that break each of those rules.

It has been interesting as I have proceeded through my degree to find out some of the background on why those rules have come to be. For example, the idea that we can't split infinitives because it is impossible to do in Latin-based languages, or the same basic reason for why we aren't supposed to end a sentence in a preposition.

My theory is that many of these myths have been perpetuated through teachers taking the easier route of telling students not to do something rather than explaining, if they know, the reason why it is frowned upon or how to do something correctly. When all of the time and energy in a class is focused on getting students to write a simple grammatically correct sentence, it is difficult to spend time on more complex ideas like how to properly use semicolons or when it is appropriate to start a sentence with a conjuction.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Captain Grammar

In high school, I had a retired Navy captain as my English teacher. He was brutal. Aside from the fact that he would kick our desks if we put our head down, he would also destroy our papers. Because his punishments were so severe, when he told us that we were to always use a comma before and, but, or or, I was not going to question him. I believed him and followed this rule intently. I did not ask why. The fear of being punished was there. I was classically conditioned.

When I got to college, this rule came with. It wasn't until a linguistics class that I actually learned why and how the comma conjunction would be used. But Captain Grammar did not stop there.

"Never ever use 'so,'" said Captain Grammar, "unless it is in the conclusion of the paper." I followed this rule up until working at the Writing Center. I would substitute this "evil" word with “therefore” instead. I must admit though, Captain Grammar is the reason I got better at writing. He was a good teacher. He just had some crazy rules for things.

Another myth I remember hearing was that we should never start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. I thought, okay. This makes sense. Then I had a few creative writing classes in high school where my teachers said it was okay. So I guess this was not technically a rule, but a suggestion.

It does matter if these rules are mistaught. It matters because we should all be learning the same rules. And I guess it also matters so that we can acknowledge that these rules are wrong so that we may learn the correct rules.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grammar Issues

One crazy thing I was taught about grammar was that you should NEVER use a comma before and. In fact, not until I looked at the six comma rules handout and started answering students questions about commas did I find out that you need a comma with an and if you are using it to connect two independent clauses. I graduated in English without ever using a comma for this purpose. Consequently, I resist using this comma rule in my own writing and I am semi-hostile toward it.

Another grammar issue I did not really fuss about until graduate school was the avoidance of contractions in academic work. I may have been cautioned against using them a few times at Brigham Young University but I can't really remember. If I did, it was so casual that I didn't really apply this rule to my writing. Even still, I use contractions in my writing for assignments that are less formal.

Fortunately, I did not develop too many grammar misconceptions; unfortunately, my grammar was frequently correct by my mom who majored in English and felt it was her duty to improve my English. Though very annoying as a kid and teenager, my papers and my tutees' papers are better for it.

Incorrect grammar instruction actually does matter, and proper usage is important even outside of the academic realm. A survey in a national report noted that 89.7% of employers view writing as essential to job success. Living in a globalized, democratic society where jobs are competitive, it is highly important to write and communicate effectively. This even applies to jobs where writing wouldn't seem to be a priority. My husband is a videogame designer--normally you would not associate writing skill with videogame creation. However, before levels or mechanics are developed, designers have to write documents explaining the rules, conditions, functions, and related information for each element. Oftentimes, his coworkers create documents with such poor grammar, that the intended gameplay idea is obscured. Without clarification, game features could be implemented in ways the designer did not intend or not implemented at all.

Proper grammar usage is also important because when grammar mistakes frequently appear, the reader gets slowed down--sometimes even to a full stop. This can cause two problems. First, the reader often resents any extra work they have to do in order to understand the author's intended meaning. This can lead to hostility on the reader’s part and make him or her question the point of reading such writing. Second, if so many small-scale mistakes are made, the reader may begin to question the validity of the content or arguments being made.

However, there are a few grammar and punctuation rules that aren’t as important beyond school. I doubt many people would notice or care if a period was inside or outside of a quote. Other grammar rules such as how to combine IC/IC and DC/IC are necessary to use because it affects clarity and readability.

Monday, October 10, 2011

That Rule is not a Rule!

Barney: Hey, Homer, you're late for English!
Homer: Pffft, English. Who needs that? I'm never going to England.

Oh, boy! So many myths—I do not know where to start. So I guess I will start with a myth that is relevant to this week’s workshop. Many people believe (and have been taught) that a run-on sentence e is a sentence that “runs on” for too long. That is, they think a run-on is an uncomfortably long sentence. This is, of course, not true. I have seen many uncomfortably long sentences in books, journals, and even manuals that were completely correct. The clauses were joined correctly, the punctuation was right, and the ideas were complete. In those instances, the sentences were simply LONG, not run-ons.

The next myth that really bothers me is that a sentence should never start with a conjunction. I hear this all the time. And true (hah! I just did it…), most of the time, a writer can simply join the offending sentence to the previous one with a conjunction. But (hah! I just did it again…) sometimes doing this adds emphasis and makes for a powerful sentence.

Alright, here is one that I have really wanted to get off my chest. When people ask, “How are you?” and someone answers, “’I’m good,” there is bound to be a grammar Nazi/ninja right around the corner to declare war on the “I’m gooders” of the world. According to Mignon Fogarty, author of the blog “Grammar Girl,” answering in this manner is perfectly fine because the word “am” is a linking verb that should be modified with an adjective such as “good” or “well.” In fact, she says, the word “good” is better than “well” because “well” generally refers to health and well-being.

Can I pick on Dr. Rogers yet? Well, Dr. Rogers and every English professor who ever existed… English professors hate the passive voice more than they hate Satan himself, but sometimes the passive voice is used on purpose (hah!) because we really do not know the subject (“insults were thrown at the town hall meeting”). Other times, it is used for effect with powerful results. We need look no further than the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Another example is this passage in the Bible: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” Sometimes, it makes writing pop, and it creates beautiful sentences.

The final myth that I must address is that rules are rules, and we must always follow them. As George Orwell said at the end of his essay “Politics and the English Language” about the rules of proper English, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Rules are guidelines, and sometimes to achieve the kind of writing we want, we have to break (or at least bend) them. It is important to know the rules. It is even more important to know when to break them.


Today we talked about grammar superstitions. I have two questions for you all this week: 1) What kinds of crazy things were you taught about grammar? 2) Does it really matter if these rules get mis-taught?