Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I Like To Drool---or Is It Grammar?

If you ask people whether or not they think grammar is important, they will stare at you for about a minute before answering: "Why, of course it is." Or, they might answer: "It don't be."

I don't think I truly learned grammar until I taught it to myself as an adult. No, don't respond by wagging fingers and badmouthing the educational system. Instead, ask yourself if knowing grammar (being able to recite rules and diagram sentences by drawing roadmaps that would make sense only to the most medicated) really makes a difference.

Language is intuitive.

We learn by sound. We hear pauses in speech and understand how to pause in a sentence. When teaching grammar, one thing I do is to have children talk and ask other children to transcribe their words. They listen for pauses and try and pick up a flow of conversation, editing out that which doesn't make sense and elaborating where necessary so that their writing becomes immediate. Another thing I'll do is have my students E-Nun-Ci-Ate in an exaggerated manner, painfully pronouncing each word, each syllable. Why? If I am correct about the sound of a language being important, then pronunciation will help students become aware of exactly what they are saying as opposed to what they think they are saying. It also slows them down and forces them to think about the logic of the sentences they are stringing together.

So do I teach writing or grammar? Depends on the group. Last year, I spent an eternity on helping students recognize and correct run on sentences. It was purgatory. Satan himself kept passing through, shaking his head sympathetically and offering to usher off some of the students. When Satan pities a teacher, that teacher really really deserves to be pitied. However, this answers the above question regarding grammar: is it important for a student to learn the difference between past perfect and future perfect, etc? No. Is it important the student knows what makes a proper sentence and be able to construct a complex sentence, perhaps with parallel construction? Yes. I don't care if they don't know how to label what they are doing, as long as they do it correctly.

Some writers who ask me to read their work will ask that I ignore the grammar and just concentrate on what they are trying to say. I respond to this with a dull look. I drool a little, too. Some writers have perfect grammar, yet their work goes nowhere. I still drool.

I drool a lot. It actually has nothing to do with my "people" skills. I just enjoy drooling.


Lana Gramlich said...

"is it important for a student to learn the difference between past perfect and future perfect, etc? No. Is it important the student knows what makes a proper sentence and be able to construct a complex sentence, perhaps with parallel construction? Yes."
I agree completely.

SQT said...

I had a cat that drooled a lot. He was a happy animal.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Hey, Stewart. One, I'm a polak raised by hillbillies, so I can't throw stone when it comes to grammer. But when I try to explain things to new writers, I have to explain that if you "find your own voice" that not every character has that same voice (grammer is what I'm saying here, y'all a buncha deepees.)

Sidney said...

I just did a short story called "The Better Gerunds of Our Nature" that deals in part with straining over grammar gnats. Especially with fiction I believe it's important to get the basics down so that they're second nature so that the writer is not bogged down with those matters and the words can flow.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lana, I think sometimes the depth of what people learn in terms of grammar is on a "need to know" basis.

SQT, why did I know that you would zero in on the drool?

That's a great line, Wayne. "If you find your own voice, then not every character will have the same voice". A writer's voice is something that tends to bring up interesting discussion. I think four writers will give me four different answers as to what that term means, and in doing so they will illustrate the concept.

Sidney, I agree. And yet...I have read two or three stories where the run on sentences don't just run--they gallop.

Charles Gramlich said...

You hit it nail on. Some rules make a lot more difference than others. The basic sentence structure has to be there for us to understand, but the other stuff is just garnish.

spyscribbler said...

"I don't care if they don't know how to label what they are doing, as long as they do it correctly."

Amen to that! I always got A's on everything, except the darn labeling. That never made sense to me until I took German. I still can't do it in English.

Travis said...

I like the approach of getting kids to practice slowing down their speech and prounouncing each syllable carefully.

I've been watching the Little League World Series this week. ESPN has the kids tell their names and favorite players at the start of each game. Most of the time it sounds like...


They don't open their mouths and they talk too dang fast! Without the information printed on the bottom of the screen, I wouldn't know what the hell they were saying.

Vwriter said...
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Vwriter said...

Stewart, have you thought of grammar as an interesting social control mechanism as well? The grammar that is taught in schools is so rarely what is used in real life that I sometimes wonder if its instruction inadvertently becomes a method of class stratification. Method might be too strong a word, though.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Sadly, grammar does get in the way. I know a scientist who specializes in atmospheric physics but speaks in double negatives and such because his entire family speaks that way.

I've taught grammar/writing before, too, Stewart. For me, the challenge was always about striking a balance. No one will enjoy reading what someone has to say until the message is clear.

Knowing past perfect tense may not be essential, but English must be objective on some level to measure progress. The nature of the beast :)

I wish I'd had an English teacher like you.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, the other stuff is garnish. But garnish makes an otherwise dull meal interesting. Or at least it potentially covers up decay.

Spy, it astonishes me how anal grammarians can be. I don't devalue what they do or who they are, I...oh, wait. Yeah, I guess I do devalue them. Nevermind.

Travis, it's been incredibly effective. Here's an interesting tidbit. Some researchers have shown that the amount of television and gaming activity kids are subjected too have actually changed their brain activity. I've sat in workshops where this has been addressed, and where the presenter suggests blocking presentation into digestible bits to accomodate the change.

MY GOD RICK,YES!!!! Social construction. Of course, the problem is that language changes and what separates and is owned by the lower class will eventually wind its way into the upper class. However I do believe grammar as a reflection of language is a way to access the power structure. Good comment.

l.a....I think the challenge in English is in helping kids understand the relevancy of the subject. Big time. I know a professor at a university dominated by engineering students who has shaken his head at how resistant students are to language arts. "Why do I need this, I'm in engineering school"?

Lisa said...

The references to accessing the power base in the comment thread remind me of a discussion I had with my step-son recently. He's in his twenties, didn't go to college or excel in school, and is now trying hard to find a career outside the fast food industry. He's bright, but his speech doesn't reflect his innate intelligence. We talked about the perception people have of us, based on how we speak and I recommended he slow down and develop an awareness of what he says, how he says it and how he enunciates (he's big on -in' vice -ing'). I recommended he pay close attention to proper speech on TV and radio and emulate it. He gets it and he's making the effort and he sounds more adult already. For younger kids, it's easy to see where lazy speech and grammar become intuitive.

Christina said...

I know a student that drools a lot. He wants to date my cousin.

That said, interesting post. I think I taught myself grammar and picked the rest up from reading and from really smart friends.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lisa, emulating television is one thing, but I've heard some pretty pathetic language. You're right about the importance of learning at an early age. However, I think as people reach maturity, if they are truly interested, they can learn if they are motivated.

Christina, I deliberately placed the drool comment to see who would respond. One can tell scads about someone by how they respond to drool.

Donnetta Lee said...

Oh, I grammar all day long with my little language disordered students. We just want to be understood! And to understand others. Grammar, gotta have it! Drool.

SQT said...

Aw c'mon Stu, it's funny to respond to drool. And less disturbing that you as Harry Potter.

Okay, I guess I have to make a grown-up comment now.

I've heard lots of writers say that they read their dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds "authentic." That's not always a grammar issue since certain characters aren't going to speak correctly. But I think it is a good strategy to use with my kids when they write something for school. I have found that they will pin-point mistakes quicker if the hear them rather than get it marked incorrectly on a paper-- plus they're way more likely to remember the mistake and not do it again.

Interestingly, my husband, who is a smart, educated guy, used to use tons of double-negatives when we met. Drove me crazy. But when I met his dad (also well educated) I saw where he got it. I talked him into dropping them out of his everyday conversation since he was headed into a very competitive professional business and he says it's helped him a lot with his confidence just knowing that his grammar won't stick out among his peers.

Bernita said...

"Or, they might answer: "It don't be."
~dies, chortling~
Had vital grammar beaten into me from Ye Olde Grammar Booke by Miss Emily Bustlewhistle.
I still set her spinning at times.

Jon said...

I think much poor spoken and written language is intentional. It is just as easy to say, "It isn't," as to say, "It don't be." Many actively choose to emulate ungrammatical language to fit in with peers or to be "authentic" and "real."
And to that extent we are seeing a genuine schizm in the American English language. It is a schizm as great and differentiating as that between Beowolf and Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Jefferson, Jefferson and Sternberg.
In 2208 people may well look back and think it quaint that we said, "We are not going to," instead of, "Wain't gonna."

Jon said...
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Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, there is nothing disturbing about me as Harry Potter. No wait. Yeah, I suppose that might unsettle some.

I think reading out loud is a good check. One thing I've noticed is in some fiction I've read is that a writer will sometimes eschew contractions because they don't think them proper English. They end up with some rather stilted sounding work that way. Have them read it out loud though, or have it read out loud by someone else, and you might change their minds.

Jon, I think there is schism there and I think you are correct to tie it to an evolving socio economic wave. As Anglo influences in American culture continue to diminish and are melded with the other cultures that make the U.S. such a unique state, I think the change will become more pronounced. The predominate governing forces in this country are currently male and Anglo, but the friction will come as that group seeks to maintain its hold on the culture and on the language of that culture.

I think Jefferson and I are quite close, by the way. Maybe Hamilton and I would have had some issues.

Zoe Winters said...

hahahahaha. I think grammar for a lot of people is largely intuitive and we often have to spend time unlearning what we learned in high school. Some of the rule are just inane. I end sentences with prepositions sometimes and anyone who doesn't like it can bite me. :P

I remember conjugating sentences in English class. Could there possibly be a more pointless activity in the universe? I thought it was fun, but I was a weirdo. And it was pretty useless. And I can't remember now how to do it, or what half the terms for certain types of words are. Like I don't even remember what a participle is. (Or if that's a real english term or if I ate a bad taco and had a weird dream.) I don't think it ultimately matters.