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Keeping the Faith A few thoughts about language

Feb 17, 2015 11:30PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine

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Keeping the Faith

A few thoughts about language

by Faith Sidlow

My daughter has had to live with a grammar nag her entire life. Of course, I’m referring to me. Even before I started teaching journalism classes at Fresno State, I was intrigued by the origin of words and the way language worked. It probably had something to do with growing up with a father who constantly corrected my speech, which is why it seemed natural to do the same thing to my daughter.

For example, I subconsciously correct her grammar while simultaneously listening to her tell me a story. I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from interrupting until she finishes. Apparently, my facial expressions tell all – with a raised eyebrow. It drives her crazy.

As a result of my gentle reminders, Mallory was one of the few elementary school children who didn’t start a sentence with “me,” as in, “Me and Regan are going to the carnival.” I have to give a lot of credit to her third-grade teacher who would also respond, “Regan’s not mean!” As in “me ‘n Regan.”

By the time Mallory was in the sixth grade, she understood subject-verb agreement and she wasn’t ending sentences with prepositions – as in, “Where’s the bathroom at?”

Now she’s a mini-me, silently clenching her teeth when someone makes a grammar faux pas, even though she still occasionally lapses into “Me and Audrey decided to…”

My grammar obsession is shared by some of my closest friends. My good friend Kelley McCoy (the editor of this publication) and I can sit and discuss grammar issues for hours, the way some people discuss football scores. And many of our discussions center around the language spoken or written by our students.

Now, in addition to my duties as a journalism instructor at Fresno State, I teach students the kind of grammar they missed in grammar school: plurals/possessives, commas and semicolons, and when to use who/whom, affect/effect and imply/infer. I teach students how to conjugate irregular verbs and how to properly use words that are often confused.

My students constantly ask me, “Why didn’t they teach us this in high school?” I don’t have a good answer, although research suggests practical grammar lessons in public schools have been reduced to a fraction of what was taught in the ‘60s. A recent survey at Arizona State University found that only one in 10 college writing instructors included grammar instruction in his or her curriculum. There are conflicting opinions regarding not only proper usage but also whether proper grammar is even relevant in today’s digital world.

Professor Paul Matsuda at Arizona State is an expert in Second Language Writing. He points to research that shows grammar instruction doesn’t guarantee learning. He encourages instructors to avoid grading students on grammar and instead simply offer “feedback” on students’ writing.

Mignon Fogarty, the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Media Entrepreneurship at the University of Nevada, Reno has a different take.

“Part of a university’s role is to prepare students for the working world,” Fogarty says. “And in the working world, it’s still important to communicate using Standard English.”

You may know Fogarty as Grammar Girl. She’s made a career out of grammar. And she’s my grammar hero. Fogarty agrees that requiring Standard English may discriminate against smart students who have good ideas but just weren’t raised using proper English.

But, she says, in the working world, Standard English is a must.

“By not teaching students Standard English and forcing them to use it, we’re not preparing them to succeed in the broader world,” she says.

Fogarty says it troubles her that when instructors focus on students’ grammar issues “it’s often veiled in racism and classism and delivered in a way that devalues the students’ cultural background.”

“You have to teach it in a way that doesn’t say you’re stupid and bad because you don’t know this and therefore your culture is stupid and bad,” she says. “I think that is often the message that is used when people do try to teach it.”

Her philosophy is to lead by example in hopes that others will follow. One of her missions is to write about grammar in such a way that people will read and learn, which is why she produces her grammar podcasts. (Those podcasts have been downloaded more than twenty million times, according to Amazon.com.)

“It’s a way of getting that information out there about what is standard in a friendly and non-judgmental way,” she says.

As for my personal grammar woes, the tables have turned. I have to be at the top of my game all the time. It’s not unusual for me to be in a conversation with my now 20-year old daughter and find myself on the receiving end of a grammar correction. She’s always very polite about it, raising her eyebrows and whispering, “Are you sure that’s correct grammar?”

It often happens when I’m using the word further/farther, as in “I think the restaurant is a little further. I mean farther. Further? Farther? Shoot!”

Mallory just laughs, satisfied that she’s caught me correcting my own grammar.

I have to admit I was nervous about writing this column. It is inevitable that someone will find an error, no matter how thoroughly the piece is edited. That’s how my conversation with Grammar Girl ended:

Fogarty: “Send me a link.”

Me: “I would love to. But just don’t correct my grammar,

OK?”

Fogarty: “I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t!”

As I tell my journalism students, good grammar may be on the way out socially and perhaps even academically, but journalistically we must stand firm. At least until the Associated Press Stylebook (the last word on grammar for journalists) tells us it’s OK to say, “Where’s it at?”

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