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.


  1. "…on national grammer day"?

    One can only wonder what proscriptions nashunal speling dae will bring.

  2. Could you come up with a different title for your blog post? I know this is beyond the point, but not all teachers are ignorant. Think of your daughter.

  3. I noticed there was nothing on that list of 11 about avoiding bad metaphors -- you know, like using graphic references to body functions and illness to illustrate a list of grammar peeves.

  4. I understand, Alice, that you might be a little tender about the headline. Keep in mind that the only paying job I have at the moment is as a part-time teacher. Oh, and that as an editor, I also fall into a category that many writers would see as a "Those who can't" one.

  5. I am soooooo glad I found you and that through you I've found Pullum. You both need to be cloned and put into every school in America. Love, love, love you both.

  6. Wouldn't that title be more accurate without the comma?

  7. Did anyone notice that Professor Pullum's last sentence was missing a word? While I see that he was harping on The Apple's claim to be giving advice on grammar, should he not have at least proofed his own copy before publishing? I know people make mistakes, and one of his arguments was that some people are just bad at spelling, but I feel that if he wants to be considered credible he should be a little more careful

  8. Anonymous, it's not as if some minor typographical error invalidates the whole point of an article. All of us make minor slips, especially when we ourselves do not enjoy the services of an editor. Try to maintain some persppective. (That last word is a typo. Think my comment is therefore invalid?)

  9. As a student at a public Midwestern university who went through a public Midwestern school system, I heartily agree with you that the state of English education is frightening, though I'm not sure whether the fault lies with teachers or students. Let's just say I'm glad I made it out alive and copy editing, considering the amount of time spent in the 7th grade covering gerunds.

    (I am willing to believe, though, that my grammatically impaired peers will somehow make it through the world thinking they are "excellent communicators" -- one of life's finer ironies.)

  10. I agree with Alice. I,too, was disappointed to see the title for this posting. It's one of those clever cliches that can be amusing in a generic way but painful in a personal way. Thank God for all those wonderful teachers who struggled with me throughout the years of my education. Yes, there were some duds. But for the most part they were selfless and undervalued...not to mention underpaid.