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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Of Grammar And Communication

There was an article on grammar in yesterday's Melbourne newspaper, the Age - no point  putting in a link as you have to be a subscriber to read most Age items online. The comments section has now closed, so I thought I'd put in my penny's worth here instead. It's all about writing, after all

The author made the very good point that, however you feel about it, grammar is about communication. A lot of once-ironclad rules have been dropped over the years. Few people these days worry about ending a sentence on a preposition or starting a sentence with a conjunction. I know I don't. These days, who cares if you use "their" with "everyone" instead of the awkwardness of "his or her"? And there is, of course, the most famous split infinitive of all time - "to boldly go" ! It's poetic. In that particular case "to go boldly" would be jarring. They did fix the political incorrectness of "where no man has gone before", of course, with the almost as poetic "where no one has gone before" (strictly speaking, it's still politically incorrect, because of all the non-humans living on those planets the Enterprise visits, so clearly, someone has gone there before, but you can't keep a good line down, so stuff correctness!)

I hated the dullness of doing grammar from the textbook when I was at school, because I was good at it. I was naturally good at it. I couldn't explain why you said this instead of that. Heck, I couldn't even tell you the definition of a dangling participle till about five minutes ago. I still can't explain it, though examples are good. The example is: "Plunging hundreds of feet into the gorge, we saw Yosemite Falls." You can see why it's not a good idea to write this unless you're writing about a bunch of tourists noticing things as they fall into a gorge, just before they go splat at the bottom. It's not something I would ever write, myself, because it doesn't make sense, does it? 

Most people, though, aren't naturally good at it. And many would not see anything weird in that sentence about the suicidal tourists. I'm betting most of my Year 8 students wouldn't. They would say, "But we know what that sentence means, Miss," and they probably would, damn them! 

That doesn't mean it's okay to get it wrong. In the end, it is about communication. Everyone has to be able to get it. Everyone includes grammar nazis and also people for whom English is another language. We need to have an agreed set of rules if we want to be able to teach the language to others. We should be able to break them sometimes, but only if we know what we're doing. You have to know what the rules are before you can break them confidently. If you break them just because you don't know them, that's when you're not communicating. 

It's kind of hard to teach grammar, though, especially if you're naturally good at it. You can't explain. You just know what makes sense and what doesn't.

And then there are the textbooks. There are textbooks now which look cute and child-friendly and aren't. The textbook formerly used at my school is one of them. I hardly used it when it was on the book list, because you had to explain the contents of each page before the kids could do it. I used it only when I felt guilty - they had paid for it, after all. 

The other day, I had to look after the Year 8 ESL students, whose teacher was absent. She had left them work, but some didn't have the worksheet, for some reason. An obliging colleague gave me a page from the Year 7 textbook. I also had to look after my integration student, who just couldn't do the writing the rest of the class was doing, so I offered him the textbook page the ESL students were doing. He looked at it and said,"It's too hard!"  And, looking at it again, I realised that, for him, it was. 

Nevertheless, you do have to get grammar right if you want everyone to understand you. That said, there are some differences between English-speaking countries. Americans, for example, say, "of a" when the rest of us just say, "a". I know that for them, it's correct(just as it's correct to pronounce "herbs" as "erbs") but it drives me nuts when I get it in my slushpile. 

And then there's spelling. A lot of kids spell texting style. When you text someone, the more characters you use, the more it costs, so you text "Wot r u doing?" and when you aren't texting, you will probably write the same way out of habit. However, there are also rules in text(or txt?) speak. You have terms such as LOL and ROTFL which everyone understands. I have heard of someone,unfamiliar with these rules, who texted LOL meaning "lots of love" not "laugh out loud". This was not a good idea, as the person was sending a condolence to a friend who had just lost a family member!    

See? Communication! 

I teach literacy four mornings a week and have to explain to my students that when they do their spelling test after we've finished a word list, they must listen carefully to the sentence in which I put each word, because there are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and mean completely different things. Mind you, I sometimes have to explain also that the rules of spelling are often messy and nearly always have exceptions, probably because of all the different people who invaded Britain over the centuries and left their own marks on the language. I tell them that sometimes you just have to know it.

But don't forget that spelling has changed over the centuries and at one time people didn't worry too much about it at all. Just look at a poem in Middle English to see what I mean. Or at Shakespeare that hasn't been fiddled with by modern editors.

And then there's American spelling, which is yet another kettle of fish. I won't go into that here, because it would take a post of its own!

What do you think? Is grammar and spelling important for communication?


Satima Flavell said...

Of course it is. We have to have standards, even if we depart from them, because if you don't have a standard to depart from you have chaos!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Quite right! Hence wat I sad about knowing the rules before you break them.

Tsana Dolichva said...

Absolutely agree! Grammar is very important and it drives me batty when people get it wrong.

The other thing that does my head in is the odd-but-not-technically-wrong syntax conventions non-first language speakers use (especially of Germanic languages because that's what I'm surrounded by). Things like "Since last year we have already been doing it this way." I have to focus not to contaminate my own writing with some of them.

A latte beckons said...

I think that I'm like you in that my grammar is generally sound, but instinctive. I'm guessing it comes from reading a lot as a child - something just 'sounds' right or wrong - like picking up a foreign language. I'm not sure if it was in that article you mentioned or elsewhere, but it's been suggested that younger children should focus on reading more, and writing less, in the early years, to cement their feeling for correct expression.

Sarah Allen said...

Love it :) Grammar is very important!

Sarah Allen
(Writing Blog)