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Teach the children well

Since the fall of 1995, I have started every semester of my editing class at Loyola with three or more weeks on grammar and usage. Nearly all of my students have been—and I’m struggling to be restrained here—hazy on those matters.* It’s not that I think that every student in every discipline should grasp the technicalities of grammar, but my students are majoring in communications and looking to make a living by writing. Would you place confidence in a physician who was wobbly on anatomy?

I am not talking about arcana, either. I have to make sure that they understand what a clause is. I ask, and they look blank. So there is a quantity of basic stuff to go over. The students who have studied a foreign language are usually a little quicker to pick this up.

But I also have to help them unlearn things. You can depend on it that several students in every class will have been instructed that ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong, that splitting infinitives is wrong, and that the passive voice has something to do with the verb to be and is very wicked.

I am up against it, because there are still teachers at the college level fostering nonsense about language, as I pointed out the other day in a brief rant about a professor emeritus of journalism at Missouri who appears to have done a great deal of harm in his career. And at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum has responded to that post, saying in part:

I agree with John McIntyre that it is a bit scary to think that this man spent a career "standing before the impressionable young" and packing their heads with arrant nonsense that editors like John ultimately have to try and rectify by returning the victims to a state in which they can write their own native language sensibly.

It's another illustration of why I am worried that prescriptivism harms the economy: think of the senselessly wasted thousands of hours each year as dim-witted journalism professors with old-fashioned ideas teach falsehoods about English out of hundred-year-old books of toxic waste (you know which sort of book I mean)** so that editorial staff members of newspapers can later spend their expensive time struggling to shake the poor graduates out of their didactogenic misconceptions and get their writing back into a state where it's fit to publish.

I am grateful to Professor Pullum for the phrase didactogenic misconception, which is a perfect term for the form of malpractice I keep encountering.

It gets worse when we move from grammar to usage, because American English in particular has been growing steadily more informal in published work over the past century. In that wide continuum between the most formal writing and the most colloquial, it is easy to misjudge. There, too, students come in bearing various superstitions and shibboleths that they have picked up along the way.

Teaching editing is demanding, and a semester allows only the barest beginning in the craft. And to have to spend time undoing other people’s bad work subtracts from the time available for the real work.

When I say “other people,” I mean you, you teachers of English, you journalism instructors, you editors and supervisors of interns. What the hell do you think you’re doing? Do you own a copy of Garner on Usage? Do you ever leaf through Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage? Have you put Strunk and White on the high shelf and picked up Joseph M. Williams’s Style? Do you ever look in at Language Log? Do you follow Jan Freeman in her Boston Globe columns and at Throw Grammar from the Train? Do you ever think about those statements that come out of your mouths? Ever check, just to make sure, whether what you say about grammar and usage has any foundation?

Well, do you?


*None of that things-used-to-be-different nonsense. It was ever thus. I went to public schools that taught traditional formal grammar relentlessly, and if any of my former classmates can distinguish today between a participle and a polecat, it is because they know what a polecat looks like.

**Though I am considerably less vehement on the subject than Professor Pullum, whenever I see someone tell a young writer something along the lines of “Strunk and White is all you need,” I do feel a powerful impulse to break things.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (19)


The full phrase is "well do ya, Punk?"
The attribute is Drity Harry:

Good instinct though.

chris_in_cal, I'm sure the Professor was just being polite (and could depend upon his loyal readers to supply the missing word mentally).

I didn't know the subjunctive existed until I'd taken a few Spanish courses.

We spend the first two years of our degree un-teaching that 'a noun is a name of a person, place, or thing' and 'a verb is an action word'. No one knows what an adverb is, so in tests it's not uncommon to see 'adverb' next to anything that is not a person, place, thing, or action...

I suppose we next will see "didactogenic" in a headline. And when did a noun not become the name of a person, place or thing? What about proper nouns?

Surely it's not a novelty that linguistics does not find the traditional schoolroom grammar terms adequately descriptive of how language functions.

So.. What is a noun then, if not a signifier? And what kind of verb is not an "action word"?

On adverbs I am hazy, and it's my own fault. I've studied four languages, each with their own way of creating and using adverbs, which by any standard should be more than sufficient to give me a clear, intuitive understanding.

But it's hopeless. I can recite definitions well enough, but ask me to pick out the adverbs in texts, and I will be very likely to both miss adverbs, and misclassify other words as such. This in any language, including my own mother tongue.

I've kind of given up on adverbs as a concept, instead relying on my intuition to mostly get them right in practice. Seems to work well enough.

"Those who can, do.
Those who can't, teach grammar.
Those who can't teach grammar, copy edit and then complain about it."
Cash the checks and count your blessings.

Rod Gelatt taught broadcast, if that makes you feel any better.

PtT: Lots of nouns, like fist and attitude, have referents that are neither persons, places, nor things, unless you take the view that a thing is anything that a noun refers to, in which case the definition doesn't help.

Fist and attitude are both things.

Different disciplines, Patricia. I'd guess that Mr McIntyre would be close to overjoyed if his editing students could identify and define the parts of speech using the terms he and I (and you? though evidently not Janne) learned in school.

Ms Lynneguist on the other hand, although the author of an excellently accessible language blog, is a professional linguist who would want/expect her students to have some grasp of the results of modern linguistic scholarship.

In my everyday life I quite cheerfully go along with Newton, but I'm told physics students have to take account of some new kids called Einstein and Planck.

Are you planning to adopt the new death-to-wags policy announced today at Language Log? I think you have some commenters that will merit it.

I eagerly await your response to the LL post.

From my experience, technical writing majors don't study enough grammar. I've had to untwist some tortured sentences, and it sometimes takes a lot of editing ink to break them of using too many big words in an effort to sound formal. This is directly a result of academic writing, which is some of the most incomprehensible nonsense a person would ever see.

Wait -- copy editors' time is expensive?

As a freelance writer, I am occasionally asked by clients to recommend good books on improving their writing. Almost always, they end their question with some variation on, ". . . and, I know, you're probably going to tell me to get Strunk and White, right?" They are always surprised when I say, "actually, I'd recommend instead a good high school English textbook, and make sure it includes a chapter or two on sentence diagramming." I still have mine and refer to it more often than they would probably believe.

I remember the "rocket ship" diagram well. I also took a lot of Latin, which helps in setting out a clear sentence - subject, object, verb. (Alice, are you there? Rap once for yes, twice for no.) As for academic writing,it is the most dense and unintelligible it has ever been my displeasure to read. They eschew punctuation, and therefore the writing never breathes. Imagine Shakespeare without a breath!

I want to state here that the responsibility of the initial training of the child is the sole responsibility of parents. If you neglect to do your responsibility, you will definitely bear the consequence. It is said that what you fail to teach your children, others may teach them the wrong way.

Sorry--I hadn't been back to see that someone had asked a question about my comment.

A noun that's not a thing (sometimes) is 'construction'. It can be a thing, as in 'the construction was flimsy', but in a context like 'the construction of the building took two years' it's an event. We can tell it's a noun because it takes 'the', but could paraphrase the phrase using a verb in its place w/out losing much of anything in meaning: 'it took two years to construct the building'. Gerunds are grammatically nouns, but typically refer to actions: 'Jumping is fun'.

A verb that's not an action? That's easy: 'belong', 'resemble', 'be' (e.g. 'I am tall' does not mean 'I act tall'), 'know'. You can tell they're not actions because they're weird in the progressive e.g. "I am knowing French" versus the action "I am learning French".

Which is all to say that the parts of speech are grammatical categories and grammar is in many ways independent of meaning (viz. Chomsky's famous sentence 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously'. Impossible meaning, but perfectly grammatical sentence). While a prototypical noun refers to a thing, not all do. But every noun can do nouny things like be the object of a preposition or the subject of a sentence or be modified by an adjective; most can be preceded by a determiner (aka an article) and can be made possessive.

To teach grammatical categories on the basis of semantic descriptions is misleading. it's kind of like telling children that birds are the animals that fly, fish are the ones that swim, and mammals are the warm-blooded ones that walk on the ground. It works for many cases, but not all, and so it's not an honest way to teach!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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