John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Those who can't, teach

Geoffrey K. Pullum, the celebrated linguist, laid down a full barrage yesterday, directed at a Web site called The Apple, which proclaims itself to be “Where Teachers Meet and Learn.”

The object of Professor Pullum’s artillery was a post, “11 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid.” As he brought each gun to bear, the target disintegrated in a cloud of smoke and smithereens. Some of the eleven “mistakes” were not even about grammar but about subjective stylistic preferences, and the ones that were about grammar and usage were manifestly defective. You owe it to yourself to click on the link and watch the action.

Repeat customers at this location will recognize that I have exercised my own more modest battery in similar manner, recently taking aim at the bogus advice of one Sam Greenspan, whose own “11 Little-Known Grammatical Errors That Will Shock and Horrify You” also curiously follows the ten-plus-one pattern, but to no better effect.

Yielding to temptation, I sampled the comments on The Apple’s “11 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid,” and, reader, I tremble for the future of the Republic. Some of the respondents, presumably teachers in our nation’s schools, heartily endorsed the author’s misguided advice. “Great post!”

A few pointed out the questionable nature of the author’s assertions about language, but some of the comments that challenged the article or other commenters did so on equally faulty grounds, as in this gorgeous specimen:

Actually, the comment should read, “The clouds appeared; then, it rained.” The “then” is separating 2 complete sentences and requires a semicolon between them and a comma after the “then”. Shame on you, writer, on national grammer day!

Language snobs were also well represented:

I am such a grammar snob and this is right up my alley. I know it may sound as though I am being arrogant but nothing makes me cringe more than when people use bad grammar. I physically feel the shivers up my spine when either one of my students or colleagues makes a grammatical mistake.

I thought for a moment that it might be the snobs and the peevers the writer was attacking in this comment:

They do serve to divide people and keep the status quo alive and well as well as serving as a very effective hegemonic tool where we police ourselves.

But on reading further I realized that this writer was aligned with the other members of the tribe holding forth at The Apple that teaching the grammar and usage of standard written English inhibits learning, leaving students’ free expression cabined, cribbed, and confined. We’ve seen the attitude before, that students cannot be taught things that they do not already know, but seldom as openly expressed.

This display of ignorance combined with arrogance is at once laughable and deeply saddening: people instructing the young in English who do not and apparently cannot identify actual rules of grammar, or distinguish standard usage from personal stylistic preference, or identify shibboleths that even diehard prescriptivists identify as errors.

It used to distress me that so many of my juniors and seniors in the editing class have trouble with grammar and usage. Now I realize that I should be humbly grateful that any of them can write intelligibly at all.