Why Kids Can’t Write, and What We Can Do About It

After years of worksheets and quizzes, many students arrive in high school with brains largely unscathed by grammar. I know this because I teach both English and Latin. It is obvious to me who understands subjects and verbs, especially in my Latin classes.

People who have studied a foreign language generally understand the grammar of their own language better than those who have not. This is one way foreign language teachers justify their existence — we will teach them grammar so English teachers can focus on dramatic irony, rising action, oxymorons and other stuff that might be on the state graduation test or the S.A.T.

I have nothing against literary analysis. Through reading and analyzing literature, students gain a new perspective. They understand that jealousy and revenge are universal, not just things that happen when you put a lot of teenagers in a large building and call it high school.

But it’s tough to write about jealousy and revenge when you don’t have the tools to express yourself. The subordination of one idea to another doesn’t just happen by throwing lots of ideas at students. My students have many ideas; they come out in long rambles beginning with “So…” and are strung together with “and” and “because.” Their reasoning never takes shape; if it does, it’s a circle. They write things like, “School should not be mandatory because students should have a choice.”

Why don’t kids learn grammar? And it’s not only grammar — why don’t they know how to spell and punctuate? More

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Spelling is Ded

Give it another twenty, thirty years. Let those of us who care, who do the job interviews and hiring, who decide what gets published – give us time to die. Then you can declare spelling dead.

People complain, “Spelling / grammar / punctuation – I’m no good at it.” The implication is that we should overlook their mistakes since they admit that they make them. It’s like saying, “I’m a jerk. But since I recognize it, it’s okay!”

Spelling and grammar are not genetic traits; they are habits. I can hear you sighing. Habits are not popular things. They are 1) something you don’t want to do but feel like you should; or 2) things you do and feel guilty about. The amount of fun is limited in either case.

If you’re writing, you should care about spelling / grammar / punctuation. Wouldn’t you speak more clearly if someone said they couldn’t understand you? If you are expressing yourself, you should care about how others receive that expression.

I admit that English spelling is illogical, stupid, not based on phonetics, as the spelling of most languages is. It’s a bear. Kids graduate from high school unable to spell ‘immediately’ and ‘definitely.’ If they put spelling on the graduation test, we’d have to fail a lot of people.

Small commercial: this is why people should learn Latin. I have yet to meet a Latin student who hasn’t improved their spelling of English. Once you know what conjugation a verb belongs to, you will never again wonder, “Is it -ite or -ate?”

To be honest, I have little love for English spelling. But I do love the language, and accept the quirky spelling the way I put up with a lover’s annoying traits. It’s not worth arguing about there, their and they’re. Why get all bent out of shape over misapplied apostrophes?

When I was much younger, I thought it would be a good idea to divorce traditional spelling and learn the Shavian phonetic alphabet. With some practice, I got pretty good at it. The problem was that nobody was as enthusiastic as I was. Though everyone complained about spelling, nobody seemed willing to make an effort to change. Books and magazines were printed in standard English, so there wasn’t even anything to read except for my own notes.

That is life. Once you realize that people don’t change unless forced, you will be much happier. Spelling isn’t going to change, and people aren’t going to suddenly improve their spelling, so I might as well just accept it. Or except it.

Owed to the Spell Checker: More

Teaching Stories

Teaching is never boring. It may be stressful as well, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d go for stress. Without stress we’d all be dead, right? — or at least really bored.

When I tell people that I teach Latin in a high school, they usually question my sanity. Why would anyone want to spend all day with teenagers? And try to make them learn Latin?

First of all, teenagers are some of my favorite people. They have many of the same concerns as adults, just less experience. They are people in transition, and change interests me.

And teaching is a job I will never completely master. I will never arrived at the point where I can say, “Now I can laminate my lesson plans.” There’s always something new to think about, so it never gets boring.

But kids get bored, and no matter how much fun I’m having with participles or subordinate clauses, nobody listens if I don’t make it interesting. Their eyes glaze over. Finding ways to keep them wide-eyed is my quest. More

They is Here

I give up.

I will no longer use he/she, him/her, his/her. These are clunky and awkward, and re-wording isn’t always better.

‘They,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ are now third person indefinite pronouns. I don’t like it, but everybody uses them that way; it’s time to give up the fight to keep them as exclusively plural.

At heart, I am a descriptive grammarian. Rules are good, but there’s a point when rules need to change. Language is not static.

But there are a few usages that really irk me — not because I’m opposed to change, but because I hear people using them without any thought as to what they are saying. More

Ugly on the Internet

blank avatarI don’t see a lot of ugly people on the internet. I see cute avatars and funny cartoons and beautiful images. Human beings are wired to judge what they see; it’s a survival mechanism. We make assumptions about people we meet, even without meaning to or realizing it. It’s discriminatory, but discrimination is built into us for a reason. How do we decide whom to trust, if we can’t use appearance as a factor? We shouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt to people who take care of our children or come into our homes. That would be naive.

How do we judge appearances on the internet, when its very nature disarms our visual defenses?There are no faces on here, just avatars and user pix. We talk to one another, but you have no way to judge whether I’m joking, lying, being sarcastic, or just stupid. Emoticons and text-message shorthand (smileys and lol’s) may help your intent come across when you’re texting with a person you know in real life, but a stranger’s smileys are no more trustworthy than their profile.

Is everyone equal on the internet? If we aren’t fat or thin, ugly or beautiful, if we don’t have scars or handicaps or irritating voices, are we all the same? More

Edaxicon Makes Bid to Acquire Dutch

Nobody’s been using Latin much — at least not for a couple hundred years — so the British have taken possession of it.

Americans could never own Latin. For one thing, the Romans never even visited New York. And the Brits had already beaten them to it. By the time America was breaking free of England, Latin was already a wholly-owned subsidiary of English. This is ironic, because if the Romans had kept their empire intact a bit longer, English would have been an obscure Germanic dialect.

The Brits own Latin. They write all the textbooks. The definitive texts of Roman authors are the Oxford editions. In movies, Romans almost always speak with a British accent. Even Russell Crowe, who is Australian, followed this rule.

If America wants to take over any language, it should be Dutch. After all, New York used to be called Nieuw Amsterdam. It was the capital of Nieuw Nederland, which took up a good part of what is now New England. There are all sorts of Dutch names on maps of New York: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Coney Island, the Bowery, Yonkers. Like the Romans, the Dutch once ruled a mighty empire. And they make great chocolate, something the Romans never mastered, since they never got around to conquering Mexico. More

More Rules to Ignore

Grammar is important. Dax would never advocate ignoring rules, but even he notices all sorts of new writing laws popping up. Is there a committee that votes on these? How can he get elected to this committee?

gears_Elsie_esqEven now, the cogs of this impressive grammar/style machine are turning. The Committee on Grammar and Style (COGS) is most likely scrutinizing this post and pointing out its errors to one another. They are enjoying themselves, he knows. He would too.

But (never begin a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’) he also knows that there is a difference between grammar and style. Maybe not a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless (fragment). Grammatical errors are heard in everyday speech (passive voice), and can be used (more passive voice) to create a narrative voice or to make dialog realistic. Nobody says, “Go back from whence you came!” Characters need to should talk the way normal people talk. (Hmm. ‘need to’ vs. ‘should.’ There ought to be a rule about that.) More

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