June 2009


I promised a review of a little grammar text I recently finished, Things Your Grammar Never Told You, and since I’m a man of my words, here goes.

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Looking at my blog stats (which I confess I’m a bit obsessive about), I notice that many of my posts with the most traffic have been ones about student teaching. So, in an attempt to write about things that I know something about (and to keep things going through this somewhat dry phase of planning-but-not-yet-teaching), I’m planning on writing a series of entries with advice for upcoming student teachers to consider before they start this invaluable (but stressful) experience.

First up is a topic I feel very strongly about: preparing materials for classroom use.

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I just got perhaps the strangest spam message I have ever received (well, at least the strangest since the IRS phishing message that prompted me to click a link to tehran.ir). It is strange because it has an element that I have never before seen in the strange messages that often pop up in my inbox (or more commonly, in the university mail service’s spam filter): poetry.

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I have, to the best of my knowledge, selected the works for my junior English course. I think that the units will account for about 18-24 weeks of instruction just on literature, with some other speech, writing, and (possibly?) research units thrown in to round things out. I’m also leaving some space for added literature to be covered at the end of the year, giving myself some buffer room in case the units I have selected go long (which is not out of the question).

Still working on my novel selection for my semester-long elective course. I really want to teach 1984 since 1) I already have a class set of Animal Farm that I plan to teach, 2) teaching two Orwell novels would be a great way to demonstrate his style, and 3) I’ve already taught 1984 and have plenty of materials and a final project assignment ready to go. We don’t have a class set of 1984, so I’d have to try and obtain it, which might be tricky since I don’t know how readily funds for new books will come. There’s a possibility, though, that I might have until next semester to get them since (as far as I know – which isn’t as much as I should, sadly) the novels course is taught 2nd semester. I hope.

Also just finished The Crucible and The Great Gatsby (since I’m a horrible literature aficionado for not having read them before), both of which I enjoyed immensely. Next on deck as far as canonical novels that I will probably teach for this novels elective: Farewell to Arms (oh, Hemingway, how I adore thee: let me count the ways…) and A Separate Peace, which I hope is decent.

Additionally, I would really like to teach a YA novel for this elective course, but I don’t know if I’m pushing my luck even trying to get 1984, and I definitely put a higher priority on that than a YA novel especially since I don’t know which one I would teach. The Catcher in the Rye (is that even properly a YA book since it’s in the canon?), Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (ooh, a graphic novel, how scandalous for a novels course!) are all books that I’ve considered that wouldn’t really be contentious (okay, Catcher might be a little contentious) and that I could possibly ask for a class set of one of them. I don’t know yet. (Leave comments with advice, si vous plait.)

I’m working on my sophomore lit selections now. I have a feeling that I will probably do fewer works of literature with the sophomores and maybe incorporate more research, critical reading, and writing activities to try and get those skills honed before they become juniors and start freaking out about ACTs.

Still left: senior English (yay for more writing and world lit) and the writing elective. Teaching creative writing is quite possibly going to be the strangest part for me to get figured out.

Can you (my ever-observant reader) tell that I’m starting to get a little panicked? (Critical reading exercise: Note three elements of this blog entry that indicate fear and mental breakdown. ) The school year is drawing nigh, and I don’t feel as confident as I should. Starting to finish up the junior course leaves me hopeful, but not as much as I’d like. (I will accept encouraging comments below as well.)

Just a few days back, I finished perusing the little grammar book Things Your Grammar Never Told You. It’s an interesting book, and I’ll get around to posting more about its strengths (and of course, its weaknesses), but I have a small qualm for the time being.

On page 54, Scharton and Neulieb talk about usage and shifts in meaning, specifically mentioning the word decimate:

Sometimes confusion about a word’s denotation occurs when people use the word in a more general sense than its original meaning warrants. Generalized use can stretch a word’s meaning until it sags like an old sweatshirt, comfortably covering more and more, revealing less and less, and doing its job in a particularly unattractive way. […] As far as some political writers are concerned, the verb decimate means “to reduce drastically.” Decimate, which is related to the word decimal, means “to eliminate one in ten.”

Later, in a glossary of usage, there is an entry for decimate, annihilate:

Note that the Latin root, deci-, is the same as in decimal, a system of numbers based on ten. Decimate means to “reduce by ten percent”; it refers to the bloody practice of slaughtering one captured soldier in ten. That’s bad but not as bad as annihilating, that is, wiping out everyone.

I was, to say the least, disappointed at seeing this.

The truth, of course, is that decimate does not merely mean “to take one out of ten,” and it very frequently means “to reduce dramatically.” Moreover, this error is an example of a fallacious appeal to etymology, and linguist Ben Zimmer  gives very convincing evidence about why it should not be defined as such:

Saying that the “real meaning” of decimate is ‘reduce by one-tenth’ aptly illustrates the “etymological fallacy” — the notion that we have to go back to the usage of a bygone era, and perhaps even a different language, to divine the “true” sense of a word. Decimate entered English around 1600, with reference to the Roman army practice. Around 1650, the Earl of Essex tried to revive Roman “decimation” to keep the peace in Ireland, but subsequent use of the word decimate in the “one-tenth” sense invariably referred back to the Roman era. And by 1663 the usage of decimate had already expanded to mean “to destroy or remove a large proportion of,” according to citations collected in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For nearly three and a half centuries, then, virtually every use of the word decimate has been in this extended sense, except when referring to the harsh old Roman practice. And these days such references seem limited to complaints about the word itself.

This error, in my opinion, is indicative of a deeper problem that seems to be entrenched in most grammar texts. Yes, grammar is about rules, tendencies, and to a degree conformity to the standards that your readers  will expect you to have, but it is not about proscriptions and dictums handed down from on high. While I think this text does better than some others (like the highly overrated Elements of Style), its propensity to spout the same old grammatical canards is disheartening. If someone can show me a grammar text that doesn’t do this sort of thing, I would be delighted.

Dear Literature Textbook Publishing Companies,

As an educator, I must thank you for doing teachers (and to a lesser extent, students) the service of compiling a great deal of literature (especially in a variety of genres), biographical and historical information, and other useful features that help facilitate the teaching of literature in the English language arts classroom. All of the work you do to give a wide selection of works saves me a lot of work in trying to track down the works that I would like to teach as well as in photocopying them for distribution, etc. I do really appreciate the fact that you provide this service, and it has been incredibly useful in my own curriculum planning since you include literature that I often haven’t even read.

However, I must make a complaint. It has become apparent to me that you are not always very careful in looking over versions of the textbooks that you send out. In particular, the teacher edition that I have is replete with omissions and errors, and not insignificant ones, either: the ending of a story might be missing, or the ending line of a poem might only have the first word, or one page might end in the middle of a paragraph and the following page repeat back at the beginning of the same paragraph.

In all fairness, I have not yet checked to see if my employer has any other teacher editions that do not have these errors, nor have I had the opportunity to check the student texts to see if they are error-ridden either.  Nevertheless, it makes my job much more difficult when I cannot even read some whole works without being cut off (unless, of course, they happen to be available on the Internet, as some poems are).

Some of these errors are surprising, so do try to be more careful in the future.

Sincerely,
Mr. B


[Maybe at some point I’ll take some pictures of what I’m talking about for those interested. It’s really irritating to be reading a story, turn the page, and see that there’s no more story – well, there is, but it didn’t get printed. If any of my student texts or any of my other teacher editions (hopefully I have another teacher edition of this American lit text other than the one that I discovered these in) have errors like these, I will raise some hell, proverbially speaking. I’ll let you, my faithful readers, know how things turn out.]

[Update, 6/27/09: I finally got back to my classroom again today, and I was greeted (so to speak) with good and bad news: Good) The student editions didn’t seem to have the errors that my teacher edition did (and I haven’t found any errors in the sophomore text – haven’t gotten to the senior text), but Bad) There were no other teacher editions there. So I may need to talk to my principal anyway about complaining to the publisher so we can get a teacher edition sans errata.]

As part of my summer reading (which is a sizable list: the majority of 3 literature textbooks, at least 3 canonical novels, and some other smaller works purely for enjoyment), I am taking a look at two grammar texts that I happened upon in my new classroom, obviously left from previous teachers (either the most recent one or the veteran who retired the year before). One should be familiar to many: William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. I can’t say I’m surprised to see this one, honestly, given how revered it is in so many circles.

The other is Things Your Grammar Never Told You (there’s a picture of an old woman on the cover, supposedly a grandmother figure – get it, grammar, gramma? …yeah) by Maurice Scharton and Janice Neulieb. The latter is a figure familiar to me: she is a professor at nearby Illinois State University, the executive secretary of IATE, and the editor of the Illinois English Bulletin. (At least one of my regular readers should be familiar with her as well.)

I’m about 50+ pages into the latter – I’m saving up my energy for Elements after hearing both the highest praise and serious criticism of it – and while it has a lot of redeeming qualities (computer tips, for instance, which are interspersed throughout the chapters), I have my reservations about many of the things it says. A full review will of course be in order once I finish it. (Whether or not I say anything much about Elements depends on how much of my comments will be any different than what more knowledgeable people like Geoff Pullum have already said.)

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