Grammar’s Greatest Protectors Actually Doing Most Damage to Language

By Jason Menard

Today is National Grammar Day and while there appears to be increasingly little to celebrate if you survey the linguistic landscape, perhaps it’s time to reassess where the actual blame lies.

We all know about the challenges to the language that are our youth. Schools have increasingly abdicated their obligation to teach, instead settling for the lowered bar that is comprehension. Text and on-line messaging have also conspired to diminish the language as the next generation’s current form of communication is actively impeding their ability to express themselves.

So we could blame the kids – after all, that’s the easy way to do. But perhaps those of us who are most interested in protecting our language need to take a look in the mirror when looking to assess blame.

Honestly? Most of us are geeks.

Well, that’s not entirely true, but our biggest proponents are so overzealous in their efforts to promote the language that they are sabotaging their own efforts.

Exhibit A? The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. Today they featured a post wishing everyone a Happy National Grammar Day. The intent was good, but the execution was lacking.

Personally, my eyes started rolling only 13 words into the first sentence when “grammartini” made its first appearance. Secondly, the embedded video of The Grammar Song, while well-intentioned, did nothing to encourage kids that grammar is cool (certainly no more than using the term “grammar is cool” would – although I did refrain from repeating the “grammar is the bomb” lyric, which appears in the aforementioned song.) All I know is that if this is the way we approach language, then it’s no reason why our too-cool-for-grammar-school teens are being driven away from proper use of language in droves.

Maybe it’s because of the way that I approach grammar. I am not a Prescriptive Grammarian. I’m realistic about language and firmly believe that it’s enhanced by evolution. Honestly, I liken Prescriptive Grammarians to those who would advocate the teaching of Intelligent Design only in schools. Yes, there’s probably a way language should be used, but life moves on – language needs to move with it.

After all, if language hadn’t evolved we’d still be speaking in a form of pidgin (oh, sorry Intelligent Designers. Yes, that whole Tower of Babel story explains it all, with God deciding to “confound their speech” by scattering humanity across the face of the Earth, all speaking different languages.)

So if, for the sake of this argument, can look at language as something that’s constantly evolving (please read Beowulf, if you don’t believe me — that is an early form of English, which bears little resemblance to our current speech), then our grammar rules must also be flexible.

Often those who are most adamant about grammar are the ones who hold onto rules that never existed (don’t start a sentence with ‘However’ – wrong! ‘A’ before consonants, ‘an’ before vowels – wrong! Don’t split infinitives – wrong! Don’t end with a proposition – wrong!). The problem is that there are few people willing to treat grammar and language in a manner that’s appealing to a younger demographic. We have to sell the value of language to them in a way that’s engaging and more targetted to their age group.

Other subjects, such as science, history, and geography, have used multi-media to their respective advantages. Instead of mindless recitation of arcane statistics and dates, that same information is passed along in a more engaging, multi-sensory impact. It’s not dumbing-down education – it’s using the resources at hand to their utmost to increase knowledge and retention.

Now how do you do that with language? That’s a good question – and one to which I’m not sure I have the answer. All I know is that corny jokes and 50s-era schoolmarms aren’t going to get it done in this attention-deprived generation with their over-developed rapid-twitch thumb muscles.

Looking back at Schoolhouse Rock formula is a good place to start for the youngest generation. Songs like Conjunction Junction, Verb: That’s What’s Happening, A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing, and Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here still resonate in the minds of certain youth who grew up in the late 70s and early 80s.

But what about our teens? How do we engage them? First off, we need to go a little old-school and actually EXPECT them to learn grammar. Good enough simply isn’t. When I have teachers returning unintelligible papers riddled with incorrect spelling and sentences that finish in mid-thought with high Bs, there’s a problem. When the excuse is, “Well, I knew what he was trying to say,” that’s an even bigger problem.

With an increased focus, eventually, we may see tweets and Facebook posts with the proper usage of your and you’re, or their/there/they’re.

Language evolves, but it doesn’t have to devolve. Teaching our kids the value of expression may take more than 140 characters, but it can be done. We can rebuild language in the next generation – we just have to find the right tools.

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3 thoughts on “Grammar’s Greatest Protectors Actually Doing Most Damage to Language

  1. Carrie Drake

    Mr Menard

    I saw your letter to the editor the other day and searched out your blog.

    I am commenting on this one because I had a recent “grammar” epiphany.

    A friend of mine asked me to read his manuscript for a book he is preparing to publish. He asked me to look for glaring grammatical errors and spelling mistakes and to just generally comment on the content. He was hoping to send a “clean copy” to his editor.

    Okay, about three pages in I knew I was not capable or qualified to do the monumental task he had presented me with. I’ve never seen so many commas in my life ! I became worried that I was being a little bit too picky so I went to the London Free Press. I read Ian Gillespie’s column of the day. Commas everywhere. I guess I really didn’t know as much about grammar as I thought I did.

    I then questioned my daughter. She is an “occasional” teacher with the illustrious Thames Valley District School Board with a degree in English Literature. Coincidentally she had just taught a lesson on the “7 proper uses of the comma” left by a teacher she was substituting for. She basically told me to just read the manucript and tell my friend what I thought of it and to leave the editing to someone qualified to edit. I did.

    I hate shoddy writing and am maybe a bit of a grammar nerd myself. But I am not a writer and I sure don’t have a good grasp on what is proper grammar for today if there is such a thing. My daughter assures me that university professors, unlike high school teachers do care a great deal about style and form.

    We could have a very long discussion about your frustration with the TVDSB but I’ll stay with one topic for now.

    I am glad to have found your posts and will follow them whenever I can.

    Carrie Drake

    Reply
    1. Jay Menard Post author

      Ms. Drake,

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I’d actually be really interested to hear what you have to say about the TVDSB issue. From what I’ve heard, the teacher’s feel handcuffed. And after I submitted that column, I learned even more disturbing items regarding teachers being sexually harassed and threatened physically without any sort of support from the administration. I’d say comments are about 20-1 agreeing with my take, but I’m always willing to hear arguments to the contrary.

      I appreciate your interest in my work and I hope to hear from you in the future.

      Reply

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