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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.



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