Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Loopy Linguistic Logic

Love this quotation from an Economist interview with Bernard Lamb, president of the Queen's English Society, which I learned about from Stan Carey's blog/tweet:
"If I see a correct semicolon, that makes my day! They’re so useful!"

Um, dude: If they were so useful, sightings wouldn't be so rare.

As I mention in my new book, I'm an antisemicolonite. In-the-trenches copy editing can do that to a person. Once you've seen enough writers composing ridiculously long and awkward sentences solely to create opportunities to show off their semicolon prowess, you see how semicolons can do more harm than good.

Stan makes some great counterpoints to the English-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket coalition. But, to me, the most striking thing about their mentality is this: The Chicken Littles bemoaning the decline of English never seem concerned that, if there is evidence that English is in decline, that could be a sign that education is in decline across every discipline.

Increased ignorance about "affect" and "effect" is, to me, much less alarming than a decline in the number of students qualified to become engineers, physicists and mathematicians. Yes, these skills may go hand-in-hand with language learning. But that's the point: If they do, why are the Chicken Littles concerned only about the language part?

By emphasizing only language and by failing to put alleged language skills declines into context with possible declines in math, science and history, the English alarmists tip their hand. They're not about concern. They're about control.

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LL Blackwell said...

You know, even as a staunch semicolonist, I have been pondering this same thing.

But first, semicolons are wonderful when used correctly. And I *do* appreciate a good semicolon use. But, as a non-copy editor, I am not so plagued by their misuse, rather just their lack of use. And, actually, I am not plagued. I just like them!

Anyhoo, this topic (aside from semicolons) is important to me as an English teacher because I face the naysayers every day! On both sides! My colleagues bemoan our students' butchering of the English language and my students wonder why in tarnation the difference between "affect" and "effect" is so important so long as you're understood.

My problem is helping my students (because I'm not sure there is help for some of my colleagues!) understand that it is through being cognisant (I know that's not spelled right, sorry) of the minutiae of language that one can truly express oneself clearly and concisely, which at times can be extremely important. Also, our society still has a strong bias against people who say things like "conversate" and "supposably" even though I'm hearing somewhat educated people use those words more and more often, and I don't want my students to be judged negatively if they don't have to.

But 15-year-olds just don't appreciate that.

What are we to do?

June Casagrande said...

I never appreciated that situation till now -- how teachers can be pulled between those two sides. That's eye-opening.

I dropped out of school after the eighth grade (became chronically truant until I was old enough to officially withdraw). It wasn't because I didn't care. It was because I lacked certain life skills. When I finally enrolled in college at 19 (a GED and some junior college credits were enough), I had that "I'm an outsider, I'm different" thing going on. But eventually I started to understand that I was gaining admission to a world from which I'd been excluded. It was a place where people could pursue better lives and take ownership of their world.

Then, when I was a senior, I was telling an older person how I had started dressing the way the other students dressed -- consciously mimicking them. I had picked up some of their speech habits, too. The older person said, "That's why people send their kids to college."

That was probably an overstatement, but there was truth in it. Knowing the difference between "affect" and "effect" gains you admittance to worlds you don't want to be shut out of. You may not want to lead a white-collar life or to rub elbows with brainy types for the rest of your life. You may not want to play. But you sure as hell don't want those doors slammed in your face for life.

So, to me, the most practical reason to learn this stuff is that it gains you admittance to worlds you don't want to be shut out of.

A less practical reason is the whole learning-for-learning's-sake thing, which I'm pretty big on. But I doubt it's possible to get that into a young person's head. So it may boil down to, "It's my obligation as a teacher to make sure you'll be accepted anywhere you want to go and that you won't be looked down on by people who hold keys to those places."

As always, I'm impressed with your dedication and your commitment to constantly seeking ways to be more effective. Your kids are lucky to have you!

LL Blackwell said...

The unfortunate thing is that 15-year-olds don't really care about admittance to places they don't see as valuable. Erg. But I guess, like you, they'll learn the lesson eventually.

Anyhoo, thanks! I do really enjoy my job, and while I think I sound crazily dedicated on paper (screen?), I definitely care about my students, even if I don't always get through to them.

June Casagrande said...

Hmmm. Suddenly I'm remembering my own middle-school days, cheering students who said stuff like, "What do I need history for?" and "What do I need algebra for? I'm never gonna use that."

Which brings us back to: People who dedicate themselves to helping kids who don't want to be helped (which, perhaps, describes all of them) has my undying admiration.


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