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Rebel grammarian breaks all the rules

Published: Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012 5:00 a.m. CDT

I was reading an article about language (because that’s how square I am) and there was a comment by a teacher that touched on one of my pet peeves (regarding education, not language).

The article was by a grammarian who is tasked with debunking language myths – old rules like you can’t end a sentence with a preposition and you can’t split an infinitive. Most of us don’t even know what an infinitive is, hence the continual splitting of them.

I’ve always said it’s OK to break a grammar rule if you know what the rule is and why you’re breaking it. If you break it enough, it ceases to be a rule.

Beyond grammar, punctuation is a whole ‘nuther story. Commas have become almost optional; semi-colons are rare. And you can’t use an exclamation point!

But I digress. What the teacher wrote in the comment section is that students “don’t really care about the evolution of language.” They just want to know what they need to know to pass the test. “I have to teach my students the standards to which they will be held out in ‘the real world.’” (Ironically, she had placed the period on the outside of the quote mark, which violates a standard that I presume she teaches.)

I have all kinds of problems with the comments she made, starting with what the students want and don’t want. Since when do the students’ wants trump the students’ needs? If you really want to teach them how to get along in the “real world,” teach them that it’s not about what they want.

I do think it’s important to teach “the standards,” but it’s not enough. If students don’t understand the fluid nature of language, they will be the ones to hold fast to archaic rules because that’s what they were taught in school. In this sense, a teacher can do real harm. The “real world” is ever-changing and those who are equipped to adapt are those who will succeed.

It’s like teaching a person how to change a light bulb. Every time the light goes out, he changes the light bulb. One day, he changes the bulb but the light doesn’t come back on. So he changes it again, over and over, throwing away the bad bulbs until his supply is depleted. Nobody told him about the switch on the wall and he doesn’t understand how electricity works. All he was taught was the standard to which he would be held in the real world.

I’ve heard teachers lament how they “have to” teach to the lowest denominator in the class. I think they should teach to the highest denominator. I know the kid on the bottom isn’t going to “get it,” but he wasn’t going to get it whether it was taught or not. The kid on top isn’t going to get it, either, if it is never taught.
© Copyright 2012 by David Porter who can be reached at Avoiding prepositions at the end of a sentence is no longer a rule up with which we have to put.

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