Grammar


I am so far behind, both here and in real life, so here are some highlights of the past, uh, week or so:

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Okay, so I had my observation earlier today, and I was very pleased with how things went. My lesson flowed just how I wanted it to: brief mini-lesson on complete sentences (amazing how many of my sophomores didn’t know how to identify the verb in a sentence), followed by another mini-lesson on run-on sentences, with guided practice throughout. It was practically an ideal situation (well, except for the amount of unprompted student response, but I chalk that up to grammar). I happened to be talking to a student as the principal left the room, and she gave me a thumbs-up as she left. Great feeling, I must admit.

Now on the other hand, I wanted to sell my juniors to the highest bidder (and at this point, it wouldn’t probably take too much of an offer). My nice lesson on McCarthyism and the “red scare”? Drowned out to “Why can’t we have time to work on our projects?” and “We’ll just forget this by Tuesday” and other various examples of whinery.* Nothing wears me out (not down) like complaining, especially when I know that I can’t give in and must push on with material.

Sigh. At least we only have one more day this week, and then a four-day weekend!

I have needed this so badly…


*I think this is my own coinage, although in truth, it’s a pun off of the name of a bar that was nearby the university I attended.

I continue to finish up planning my curricula: honing in on the major projects that I want to do for each course, matching up key assessments with state standards and descriptors, finishing my syllabi (which I think are clear and honest). I feel good about this.

I come home from work and find a letter from my superintendent, one which has been sent to all returning and new teachers. It contains the agenda for our teacher institute the first day of school (before classes start the following day) and…a list of suggestions from the spring?

I think, Okay, this should be interesting to see what the teachers thought could be improved. Maybe I can get some idea of what I’m in for.

I was at least right on the last part.

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Disclaimer: I like thinking too deeply about the characteristics of things that some most people probably think should be taken at face value. If you are one of those people, turn back now. If you’re one of those people and can’t help yourself, my condolences.

I recently noticed – okay, it wasn’t recent that I first noticed, but I observed again – that the syntactic features of Facebook statuses are quite varied. Eric Baković at Language Log wrote about pronoun issues with Facebook back in May, which was sometime after Facebook decided (perhaps after some complaint from syntactic-minded users, or maybe just from non-syntactic-minded people who just thought it was awkward) to stop forcing users to use “<Person’s name> is” at the beginning of statuses. Currently, the default is a box that says “What’s on your mind?” rather than prompting for an exact phrasing of the user’s status. Some people have ignored the fact that Facebook inserts the user’s profile name at the beginning of the status, which results in updates like

Jane Smith* what to eat….

Isaac Houston* stargazing! finished up for the night. took a fantastic picture of jupiter live! I will have a picture posted tomorrow I hope..

But at least among my friends, who are not universally English-oriented individuals (although I have plenty of English majors, graduates, and professors in my friend list), the trend as I’ve observed it in my relatively small sample is to stick with the classic style of updates and start with a verb. What’s interesting to me as I think about how I update is that there is also a tendency to stick to forms of “be” or “have,” the former especially due to the natural tendency for status updates to be expressions of an emotional or physical state (e.g. “Jacob Seinz* is tired and needs to go to bed now.”). Other copula appear less frequently, and there are a few others that tend to be more abstract (c.f. “need” in the previous example).

I’ve noticed, however, that even when I want to express some action rather than a state of being, mood, etc., I almost always use the present progressive. This tendency popped out to me when a friend’s status said “Marsha Cherrywood* reads Freire”, and I realized that I probably would have said “Mr. B is reading Freire.”

So now, just because I don’t like fitting into neat little syntactic modes, here is my new status:

Mr. B updates his status in simple present tense.

Much better.


*Names withheld to protect the innocent. Or something.

This weekend was my 6th wedding anniversary with my beautiful wife, and we managed to arrange an overnight stay to get away to a hotel about 45 minutes away, complete with dinner, movie, swimming, hot tub, and some shopping today (mostly for my wife). It was a good time, and we enjoyed our time away, especially since we were able to spend time together without our two boys (who stayed with my parents), something we don’t get to do often.

Now we’re home, and I need to update the blog – what better to do that with than a tale of my recent acquisitions on the literary front?

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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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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.

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.)

This Language Log post by Geoff Pullum is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Pullum has been making rounds after his article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talking about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of the first edition. I’m not a big fan of Elements (although I’ve had at least one writing instructor who was), and neither is Pullum, which has made some people very angry, including a commenter on an NPR story which Pullum was interviewed for on the topic of Strunk and White.

The whole response is brilliant (and you’ve got to be amused by someone who gets so angry at criticism of “proper” grammar but fails to use it herself), but my absolute favorite part is when Pullum responds to the accusation that he merely looked at his “favorite authors” to decry one of the grammatical proscriptions contained in Elements:

Third, I didn’t look at my “favorite authors”. I would rather eat live worms on cold toast than read fin-de-siècle chick lit like Anne of Avonlea.

When people like Pullum have blogs, it makes me feel like the world, at least in a small way, is just.

Week 1 is over for student teaching, and I have to consider it largely a success. I’ve been teaching one course entirely since Tuesday, and those students have been fairly responsive over that time. I’ve also learned quite a bit about these classes and about instructional technique in just these few short days.

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