One of the presenters made the point that most anti-grammar advocates don’t actually oppose teaching students grammatical correctness in written English.
What they really oppose is teaching students the names of grammatical concepts. They’re against teaching labels.
But, she said, when you refuse to teach labels, you deny students the language of language.
To underline the point, she and her co-presenter acted out an extended dialogue in which the only nouns were “thing” or, alternatively, “things.” It was pretty funny. Completely incomprehensible, but funny.
This reminds me of a friend of mine, who was talking about having a hard time, as she gets older, remembering what things are called. It drives her college-age son nuts, she said.
“It’s not a doohickey, Mom!”
She hears that a lot.
I said He should just be grateful you didn’t say thingamajig.
Or thingamabob, even worse.
Half the time the opposition to teaching knowledge amounts to no more than an opposition to teaching vocabulary.
I don’t get that.
People learn vocabulary fast. In fact, vocabulary learning is the one area where adult L2 learners excel. (I’ll find a source for that & post…)
All these people lobbying against teaching content …. they seem never to notice that in real life it’s not fun, not knowing the names of things.
What do you do when you want to look something up but you don’t know what it’s called? Sometimes you can just type what you know into a search engine and it will sort things out for you. I just typed “part of the car that covers the engine” and I got:
Sadly, things are not always this easy. Right now I know what I want to make but I don’t know what to search for. I know what it looks like and how it behaves, but not how it’s created or what you call it. In fact, I can even draw a picture of it. It looks kind of like a stained glass window.
Where college writing is concerned, not knowing the search term is a chronic problem.
It’s a problem because nobody teaches formal grammar any more. When I say “any more,” I mean not since the 1950s, pretty much.
My students have usually heard of “subject,” “predicate,” “noun,” “verb,” and “sentence,” but that’s about it.
So nobody can look anything up. Not on Google, not in a handbook. Especially not a handbook, which, unlike Google, doesn’t try to guess what your question is.
Here’s an example.
In my first semester of teaching, I think it was, I wanted to know which was correct (in formal writing):
Do you mind my sitting here?
Do you mind me sitting here?
I was pretty sure “my” was right, but only because in years gone by I had always said and written “my.” But that was then. In recent years, I had started saying and writing “me,” so I wasn’t sure. (I take the fact that my usage had changed to mean that the rule was changing.)
I had no idea how to look up the answer.
I did know what the word “possessive” meant in the context of grammar, but I didn’t know what a word that ended in “ing” was called.
This is a subtle point, and hard to explain without using the sort of technical language I usually try to avoid; but if you can learn how to precede gerunds with possessive pronouns, your writing will definitely improve in the eyes of many readers.
It’s not wrong to write “do you mind me sitting here?”
But it does sound different from “do you mind my sitting here,” and it makes a different impression.
When you teach writing, part of what you’re doing is giving students the means to control the impression they make.
Research indicates that if the students know about 98% of the words on a page, then they can read it quickly and with high levels of comprehension. Below 90% (one unknown word in 10) the reading becomes frustrating and slow requiring a lot of dictionary use and comprehension suffers badly. The Extensive Reading Foundation’s Guide to Extensive Reading
I first came across this research while teaching English 109, and it sure corresponds to my experience.
If my students knew just 90% of the words in a text, they couldn’t read it at all, even with the definitions of new vocabulary words typed in the margins.
Every time you look up a new word you have to remember a) what you were just reading, b) the ‘name’ of the new word, and c) the new word’s definition.
Plus you have to moosh all these things together into a meaningful whole, an operation that is also performed by working memory.
And since you know only 90% of the words, you have to do this over and over again, which erodes your memory of the other words you just looked up, not to mention your memory (and, consequently, your understanding) of the essay as a whole.
It’s like trying to multiply 79 by 6 inside your head. You have to remember the 79, you have to remember the 6, you have to remember the subproducts (is that the right word ? I don’t remember !), and you have to perform the calculation.
The most important deliberate learning activity is using word cards …. You need to take control of this very effective activity and keep using it to learn new vocabulary and even more importantly to keep revising previously met vocabulary. You may find that some teachers advise against using this strategy largely because of the belief that all vocabulary learning needs to occur in context. They are wrong. It is important that there is vocabulary learning in context through meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, and fluency development, but it is also important that there is deliberate decontextualised learning through the use of word cards, because such learning is very efficient and effective. Some people also believe that because word card learning involves first language translation, it encourages thinking in the first language rather than the foreign language. Research however has shown that in the beginning and intermediate stages of language learning the first and foreign languages are unavoidably stored together. Using bilingual word cards is a very effective deliberate learning strategy that you should use.
There’s nothing wrong with expressions like “heavy lifting,” “win-win,” “paradigm shift,” “elephant in the room,” etc. All of these mots mean something real. That’s why people use them.
That said, I do agree that neither “Give 110 percent” nor “There’s no I in team” have much to offer in the way of communicative oomph.
I also admit to being tired of hearing “going forward” and “reach out.” Blech. My feelings on the subject are neither here nor there, however. Both expressions still mean what they mean, and people will continue to use them.
One more thing. “Boil the ocean“
What is that?
If I have to ask, then you’re probably not using “boil the ocean” in the office, at least not often enough for “boil the ocean” to have become cringeworthy.
The Norman Conquest involved words as well as weapons: an invading army of over 10,000 Old French vocabulary words. About 75 percent of these are still in current use. But while their endurance is impressive, a sinister question emerges: what happened to the other 25 percent?
And are still more French words on their way out?
I see a new invader, a fifth column deriving from within the pre-Norman Germanic core of English. Its M.O.? Two quintessentially English tools: verb + adverb = verb; and verb + adverb = noun. Its purpose? To banish from everyday speech (and from everyday writing, and even from more formal communications) any remaining whiff of French elitism.
“blow back” for “repercussion”
“dig in” for “entrench”
“drill down” for “analyze”
“push back” for “resist”
“take away” for “conclusion”
“walk [it] back” for “retract”/“retreat”
In other words, when I drill down into everyday English, this is my takeaway: the linguistic blow back from the Norman Conquest involves a gradual walk back from words of French origin—part of our more general push back against elitism and digging in against privilege.
Hmm… involve, origin, general, elitism, privilege… We’ve still got a few words to go.
Two nights ago, just past 11 pm, the dogs took off for parts unknown.
That was my fault.
Ed had taken theirfence collars off because it was time for everyone to go to bed–go to bed, not light out for the territories, I thought we all agreed on that—but then the dogs were agitating to be let out, so I let them out.
Why did I let two young, hyperactive field Labs outside after 11 pm without their fence collars?
Because autopilot. The dogs want out, I let them out.1 Presto chango. There’s no intervening thought process.
After I let the dogs out, I forgot about them (autopilot) until Ed came into the bedroom and said, “Are the dogs in their crates?”
One thing led to another, and the rest of the night turned into a lost-dog-finding lollapalooza that culminated in my registering 3,300 steps on my new FitBit before dawn. Thirty-three hundred steps, two hours sleep. Good times.
Moving on to the raccoon part . . . around 2 am I was awakened by what sounded like multiple dogs screaming — screaming, shrieking, squealing — it was an unbelievable racket; at least two blocks away but still loud enough to wake me.
It had to be Luke and Lucy, who sounded freaked out of their minds, but what kind ofanimal were they fighting?
More importantly, were they winning?
Both dogs eventually made their way home, but not without igniting a second drama when Luke showed up without Lucy. Lucy is Luke’s half-sister. She’s younger and smaller than Luke, probably small enough and young enough to lose a fight with a coyote–definitely too small to prevail against two coyotes–and she is devoted to Luke. And she wasn’t with him.
She finally turned up an hour later, sporting a minor injury to one paw but otherwise none the worse for wear, although she refused to leave the house the entire next day. Which is notlike Lucy or any other member of her tribe. Field Labs live for the outside.
So yesterday I was filling Katharine in on the night’s events, and the subject of raccoons came up, probably because it had crossed my mind that Luke and Lucy might have been shrieking at a raccoon. Turns out the raccoons in Katharine’s neighborhood are an incredibly scrappy lot. They fight all the time. They used to fight just in warm weather, but now they fight year round. It’s like West Side Story, only for raccoons.
Plus they’re loud. They’re so loud Katharine had actually made a tapeof a recent altercation. So naturally I Googled loud raccoon fight, andbehold.
This popped up, too:
Given the fact that raccoons spend so much time screaming and yelling and carrying on that they’ve become famous for it on the Internet, I’m thinking it had to be a raccoon Luke and Lucy were fighting, not a coyote. Raccoon, or raccoons, plural.
Anyway, this afternoon, while working with one of my students, I came across aDaily Language Reviewexercise that included the word “raccoon.”
Googling to make sure “raccoon” has two c’s, I found this:
In the new study, the researchers presented captive raccoons with a cylinder containing a floating marshmallow that was too low to grab. Next, they showed the raccoons how dropping stones in the water would raise the marshmallow.
Two of the eight raccoons successfully repeated the behavior, dropping the stones to get the marshmallow. A third took matters into her own hands: She climbed onto the cylinder and rocked it until it tipped over, giving her access to the sweet treat.
“That was something we hadn’t predicted,” and indeed, had designed against, says study leader Lauren Stanton, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming.
“It reaffirms how innovative and how creative they are in problem-solving.”
Adds Suzanne MacDonald, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, “I thought it was very raccoon-y that one of them figured out how to just tip the whole apparatus over”—much like they do with trash cans.
That is a fabulous descriptor!
I’m trying to think of something I can apply it to other than a raccoon.
A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”
Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.
Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”
Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.
So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?
It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.
I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”
I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.
Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.
I’ve just come across the expression “punctuated developments” in an article sent me by Allison C:
What are board members good for? Well, according to Boivie et al., they provide “access to resources like advice, counsel, knowledge of external events and/or influence with external stakeholders.” They also play a crucial decision-making role during “punctuated events” — crises, basically — such as management transitions, accounting scandals and “other internal and external shocks that increase the uncertainty in which a firm operates.”