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Barbara's Virtual Pen

Is Grammar Really Important?

Grammar is important, and it has not been taught in most American schools for many years for a very simple reasons: most teachers do not know enough grammar to be able to teach it. All prospective English teachers should have at least some linguistics as part of their curriculum; in fact, all English majors should, for without a strong background in the language it is difficult to really understand great literature. On the bright side, grammar is now being taken more seriously in the publishing world, and the evidence for this can be found in the proliferation of certificate programs in editing. Grammar is always a major component of these programs, and rightly so.

I keep hearing people say that "sticklers" spoil language; you have to "loosen" up. To them I would say that we have only language with which to communicate, and if we don't do our best to say what we mean and mean what we say, we are lost. Sloppy speech, whether written or spoken, starts a chain of miscommunication. Remember, at our best, nothing is totally communicated from one person to another. Never. Considering this, how can we do less than our best if we are ever to honestly say anything to each other?

In response to the comments of others, I would like to add that although fiction doesn't always follow the rules of standard English usage, it is important that the writer of fiction understand the rules before deviating from them. Picasso learned to draw before he went abstract; he didn't make all those funny little marks because he couldn't draw, but precisely because he could! That is what gives control.

The truth is that you have to learn the rules before you can break them.  Read More 
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Editors and Errors...

An editor recently complained about a company he was thinking of working for with the following comments.

"Well, if you go to their sample of Level 1 proofreading, you will see that the sample of proofing did not do a very good job:"

[He should be careful about saying that the "sample” did not do…]

"This sentence, for example, was untouched: The CEO and/or President role is unlike any other role in a company.

"At the very least, shouldn't "President" be "President's" with an apostrophe "s?"

[Actually, what would be correct is: The CEO’s and/or President’s role is unlike any other in the company. Both need the possessive.(Actually, I think I might leave out the “or” and stay with the “and”)]

"I would question the legitimacy of the organization from it's own lack of proofreading in a sample that is meant to show proofreading..."

[it’s own lack of proofreading…! Yikes! it's!]

This fellow’s complaint about the proofreading sample has merit in that the sample is incorrect, but his “correction” not only did not fix the problem, but evinced his own poor grasp on grammar. And then to compound that, his comment, most glaringly with that awful “it’s” being used as a possessive, reflects rather poorly on his candidacy as an editor/proofreader!

Why would I bother to post the above, which I hope is not read by the person who made the comment? My motive is to point out that even working editors often do not have sufficient background in English grammar to adequately do their work. Having a degree in English does not mean that someone has learned the mechanics of the language. Grammar deals with the structure of the language and as such is never dealt with in literature classes or, alas, even in most writing classes, although it should be. This will not change until English majors, and particularly anyone considering becoming an English teacher, must take at least ne, better two, linguistics classes in order to teach. Such courses would be invaluable for journalists, writers, and editors as well.

If you want students to learn, you first have to teach the teachers. “ Read More 
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A Language For Our Times

Lately, I've been hearing a great many gripes about errors in published books, and it is a valid complaint. But then a subsequent discussion about it in a LinkedIn disussion group set me thinking, and I decided to voice some of my musings.

A living language is a changing language. As such, if “wrong” usage becomes widespread, it eventually is no longer considered “wrong.” Living languages see changes in spelling, grammar, and usage. For example, the lead / led confusion may seem straightforward to those who adhere to current rules of verb conjugation, and yet I can see the confusion, as many think of read / read, and recall how in school irregular verbs were grouped together. It is easy for someone to imagine that read and lead were in the same group of irregular verbs. If the trend continues, they may eventually be. But for now, they are not.

I read the book aloud to the child.
Yesterday I read the book to him for half an hour!

We lead many groups on hikes. Last year we led at least fifty!

As for they’re and their, there is no excuse for confusion among the educated, and yet I’ve gotten e-mails from editors confusing the two! It seems that some people do not understand the use of the apostrophe, and that they’re means they are. Same with it’s and its, not seeming to understand that it’s is a contraction of it is, while the possessive of it is its, without the apostrophe.

They’re minding their own business.
Their minds are made up; they’re taking their trip in August.

It’s a well-known fact that a dog may chase its own tail.
It’s been snowing so heavily that the group lost its way.

I don’t blame text messaging for these problems as they predate TMs. The truth is that very few people really learn grammar and fewer bother to teach it. How can they if they’ve not learned it themselves? When I told my graduate school advisor that I wanted to take linguistics, he told me not to bother. I was shocked at his attitude (at an Ivy school, no less), and decided to ignore him. I wound up taking a number of linguistics courses. I am grateful for my decision. It was crucial in my career both as an English teacher and an editor/writer. I couldn’t understand how someone could study “English” and not learn the language itself.

With the rise of the Internet, neologisms today are multiplying as never before due to the rapid explosion of social media and the need to communicate in different ways, and particularly with an emphasis on brevity. After all, what are you thinking in 140 characters or less is an inducement to many to create new words altogether, if not abbreviations. Grasping the fluid spelling variations has been a challenge to those who attempt to keep up with this communication phenomenon. But it does not excuse blatant assaults on accepted grammar and usage.

English is a dynamic modern language, really a bastard language, but nonetheless one that reflects our times. It will continue to change with our society, and we should embrace the changes, keep an open mind, and not be too unyielding about trying to hold back the surge.  Read More 
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