Category Archive • Grammar
January 27, 2005
Grammar wars

I agree with this man, rather than this one. I've never taught writing, and if I did I might totally change my mind, but saying that grammar isn't an important part of teaching writing sounds to me like saying that the individual sounds of letters aren't important in teaching reading. And we all either do know what that last disastrous notion lead to, or we damn well should. Go here for some enlightenment if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Writing is grammar. And while we're about it, if you know some grammer, you'll make a whole lot more sense when you talk, also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Grammar
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January 20, 2005
Perry de Havilland says that old fashioned good grammar just might be making a comeback on the Internet

Earlier this evening I was socialising at Perry de Havilland's. It was essentially a meeting between these people and some of the starrier of these people, among them the people who actually first wrote the software that this blog uses to run itself. Had I truly understood who they all were exactly (one of them was definitely this lady and I sat next to this gentleman), I would probably have felt even more insignificant than I did.

I was only there at all in order to return a copy of a magazine in which an article about Adriana appeared, which I had been scanning in text and the photo from, and I had to leave early. But before I did, I picked up an interesting little observation from Perry de Havilland.

Perry spends quite a bit of time participating in on-line chat-rooms (please forgive my approximate spelling there) mostly on the subject of computer games, concerning which Perry is an enthusiast rather in the way that I enthuse about classical CDs. And Perry reckoned that he might (he's not sure but … might) have spotted an interesting trend, with clear educational vibes attached to it.

During the last year or so, Perry says, he thinks he has spotted, in the many chat-rooms he frequents, a somewhat new attitude towards English grammar. Whereas in former times, chatterers would chat away using very bad spelling, worse punctuation and with no apparent idea of the meaning of the word 'paragraph', such chatterers are now starting to be criticised by more orthodox and easily understood contributors. Several times lately, for instance, a chatterer has erupted with a list of queries presented as a slab of miss-spelt gobbledegeek, and the very first responder has responded along lines like these: "I probably could answer your questions, but first I would have to understand what the hell you are talking about, which I presently do not. Try spelling words correctly. Try using capitals at the beginnings of sentences. Punctuate. Arrange separate questions in separate paragraphs. In general, make an effort to be understood and to make sense. Until you do, I have nothing more to say to you." Harsh! But: interesting!

Will this kind of pro-grammar heckling have consequences? If it gets louder in volume and vehemence, then it is surely bound to.

Perry and I were interrupted about half way through making the following point, so this next bit may only be my opinion and not Perry's. But as I recall it we were both converging on the notion that what is happening here is that human beings, so to speak, are entering chat-rooms hitherto mostly inhabited by extreme geeks, and these humans are bringing with them their old fashioned ideas about how well-written English is easier to understand than semi-literate techno-babble, or just plain babble.

Personally, I am startled by the illiteracy and bad spelling of some (but not most) blog comments, not all of which is at all explicable as merely caused by haste and/or poor (or no) checking. But that is a value judgement, and is not the central point I am making here, i.e. that Perry was making. The point here is that old fashioned grammatical correctness, quite aside from how much people like me prefer it, may actually, as a matter of fact, be making a come-back, and what is more doing so in an arena hitherto assumed to be a force only for grammatical anarchy.

Personally I have had very little to do with chat-rooms, and a lot of that is because of my prejudice that they abound with – often deliberately – lousy grammar. Blogs, in general, certainly the ones I read regularly, tend to be far better written. They are written by humans, for humans.

Which is all part of why the people I met earlier this evening are all of them so splendid. I wish them all, both my friends in the Big Blog Company and the Six Apart/Movable Type possee, the very best of good fortune. They deserve it.

I checked this posting more carefully than usual for grammatical errors, for obvious reasons. Deep apologies for any grammatical errors that still remain.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:55 PM
Category: BloggingGrammarLiteracy
January 13, 2005
Educational crisis in Berkshire

I thought that this posting was going to be about this story, as told in paragraph one:

LATER this month Brakenhale School will be officially no longer be classed as failing. This is great news and a huge testament to the hard work which has gone on over the two years it has been in what the government calls 'special measures'.

But it turns out that my posting is actually about paragraph two, which reads as follows:

It is difficult to underestimate how serious a crisis was at the back end of 2002.

I see two howlers in this short paragraph. First, to be charitable, let us surmise that a "there", or equivalent word, was simply missed, between "crisis" and "was". Either that or the "a" should be "the". But second, more seriously, "underestimate" should be "overestimate". You see this a lot, and it makes the hackles of my inner stickler, to use Lynne Truss' phrase in this book, rise. Can a stickler have hackles? The one inside me does.

Government inspectors were appalled by what they found, concluding that the children were not provided with a proper education.

This Bracknell News opinion columnist seems to have suffered educationally also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:02 PM
Category: GrammarLiteracy
March 25, 2004
Ouch

I love this comment, from S. Weasel, on this at Samizdata today, which speaks for itself:

You know, bob, promoting the importance of education using horribly mangled syntax has got to have a cracking good joke in it somehow. I just can't think what it is.

No, that is the joke and you just cracked it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:44 PM
Category: Grammar
October 28, 2003
Other edu-bloggers

Joanne Jacobs has added a special and separate list to her sidebar of teachers who blog, as she reports here.

I looked at the top one, here, and was somewhat taken aback by the complete absence of capital letters.

I went to the second one in Joanne's list, here, and finally came across (on the left hand side) something I've been … not looking for exactly, but waiting to find, which is students blogging. Not older students complaining about their college professors being lefties, but younger people writing short entries with their thoughts, in order to get better at writing and thinking.

This guy, for example:

I liked working on the internet in my weblog. It was a lot of fun. I got to work on the computer. Mrs . Pritchard tought me alot about computers. It was alot of fun working on the computers.

I liked when the teachers wrote to me in my weblog. It helped me work better . It was cool knowing that teachers wrote to me. My weblog helped me work better because I would try to work harder because anybody could read it and I don't want them to think I was dumb.

That was the latest entry, on June 5th. It sounds a bit dutiful and "What am I going to put?" to me. He doesn't really sound like he's having alot of fun. But if he learns to spell better because he doesn't want people thinking he's dumb, that would be cool I suppose. And see also Feb 21: Girls Can Be Good At Computers. You learn something new every day.

At least he knows about capital letters.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:08 PM
Category: BloggingGrammar
May 16, 2003
The immorality of coherence and the morality of incoherence

I came across this little comment in an email debate on the Libertarian Alliance Forum, from Rob Worsnop, which seems to me to be fraught with educational implications, and to be worthy of wider circulation:

I have a simple, time-saving rule for usenet and mailing lists: Ignore all correspondents who refuse to use upper-case and vaguely correct grammar. Most of the time, someone who isn't capable of organising a simple sentence is equally incapable of organising his thoughts.

I see this principle at work many times in my professional life. People who write garbled e-mails are rarely good programmers.

I agree, especially about the neglect of capital letters.

One of the most deeply embedded memes in Western culture just now is that being verbal fluency (UPDATE: see comments!) is evidence of dishonesty, that it serves as a mask behind which evil thoughts and plans may be hidden, while mumbling and hesitating when trying to express oneself is evidence of openness, guilelessness and all-round moral excellence, and that complete silence is even better. Think of all those fluent, posh, English actors, who make a handsome living playing Hollywood villains. And think of their antagonists who let their guns and fists do the talking.

Perhaps this is what causes people deliberately to set aside whatever grasp of grammar that they possess when battling it out on the Internet. They adopt a false pose of mental confusion, in order to seem honest! Complete silence doesn't work in email ratfights, but incoherence is the next best thing if you want to be thought honest and authentic.

Worsnip's point is somewhat different. He is talking about people who can't rather than who won't express themselves grammatically. But the two ideas are pretty closely linked. Anyone who thinks that grammar is wicked is liable to think that computer programming is wicked also and not to want to do that well either.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:12 PM
Category: Grammar
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January 14, 2003
It's

I admire Michael Peach's blog, and my admiration was hardly diminished at all by the mistake he had at the top of it until Diane Patterson pointed it out. I noticed it too, but I was already starting to wonder whether "it's" as the possessive pronoun of "it" is a mistake, or perhaps something a bit more interesting than that.

Point one. Michael isn't the only person who perpetrates this mistake, or maybe "new usage". You see it all over the place. It's everywhere. (Ha ha.) And it's – it is – indeed sensible to make a distinction between "belonging to it" and "it is".

But if "Brian's Education Blog" has an apostrophe after Brian, why shouldn't "libertarian unschooling at it's best" be spelt that way as well, with an apostrophe after "it"?

What, in such circumstances, does it mean to say that "its" is correct, and "it's" (for belonging to it) is incorrect. Words mean what people say they mean.

The turning point would really come if some people started using "it's" in this way, on purpose, on the grounds that to them it makes more sense. But even if that doesn't happen, a collective failure to do things the "correct" way could be enough to result in a genuine change.

Take the rule that all written "sentences" (clutches of words between this full stop and the next one) have to have verbs in them. Nonsense. Not true. Stupid. Verbless sentences? Fine. No worries. Not a problem. It used to be that although you wouldn't be sent to prison for talking like that, you couldn't write like that. You just could not. Not done. Not the thing. But now, because of writers like me who say that this "rule" is dumb, the rule simply does not apply any more.

Or what about the (to me) utterly vile habit of just not using upper case letters even at the beginning of each sentence. I hate this. (I even originally wrote this paragraph in this all lower case manner, but then I hated it so much I changed it to regular again. Interestingly, Word For Windows agrees with me!) But if enough people decide they are going to do it, who else can stop them?

I'm starting to wonder if there might perhaps be something about our culture now which makes standardised spelling and standardised grammar more difficult to sustain and defend. I suspect that the printing press had a lot to do with the establishment of standard spellings and grammatical rules in the first place, and I further suspect that the gradual erosion of the printing press as the dominant literary machine, so to speak, by … well , by this stuff, is making standard spellings and grammatical rules gradually harder to sustain.

All of which makes teaching that much more interesting.

There. I think that counts as a decent day's EdBlogging.

("EdBlogging"?!?! … Just what kind of a neologism from hell is that? Have you no standards man? Are you some sort of damned barbarian? …)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Grammar
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