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English is Messy

One of the greatest surprises has been how often I bump up against the elasticity of the English language. On Friday, I gave the second of two quizzes on chapter four of Strunk & White's famous Elements of Style—the chapter on commonly misused words. While writing the quiz, I realized just how much the language has changed since Mr. Strunk was around. (Few would blink at the use of "however" at the beginning of a sentence these days.)

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Topics: Education
English is Messy October 26, 2009  |  By Alissa Wilkinson
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My first semester of teaching writing has had its surprises—mostly good ones. I like my students. They are an intelligent, engaged bunch, and they write pretty interesting essays (which makes the one who has to grade them each weekend happy).

One of the greatest surprises has been how often I bump up against the elasticity of the English language. On Friday, I gave the second of two quizzes on chapter four of Strunk & White's famous Elements of Style—the chapter on commonly misused words. While writing the quiz, I realized just how much the language has changed since Mr. Strunk was around. (Few would blink at the use of "however" at the beginning of a sentence these days.)

The language is elastic in other ways. I'm American, but Comment is Canadian, and our authors come from both sides of the border (and sometimes England, too). The rules, I'm discovering, are very different. From spellings (you Canadians are more fond of the letter u) to punctuation (that rule about punctuation inside quotation marks seems to disappear when you cross the Atlantic), English is slippery.

All of which makes teaching the language tricky. I tell my students that there are some non-negotiables (for instance, comma splices are never okay), there are slippery rules (the passive voice is often decried but also often necessary), and there are breakable rules (for instance, essayists often use fragments with aplomb). Opinions vary on which rules are okay to break, but I tell my students that none of them are good enough writers to break them right now.

The truth is that even at a school like King's, a small private college mostly made up of students who graduated at the top of the class, students are woefully unprepared to deal with the written English language. Having been homeschooled by a mother who went to a Catholic grade school, I didn't realize how bad the situation is—at least in the United States—until now. In the first essay of the semester ("my experience with writing"), many of my students wrote of high school English teachers who corrected ideas, but never grammar. Several wrote of the frustration of moving to a new culture in middle or junior high school and the "lost years" trying to learn in a language they didn't know, resulting in an inability to deal with English properly when they returned to the U.S.

Part of the problem, as far as I can tell, is that American high schools tend to lump composition, literature, vocabulary, and grammar instruction into an amorphous blob called "English," then expect teachers to know what to teach. Who wouldn't want to ignore the mechanics in favor of the ideas?

Earlier this fall, I greatly enjoyed a series in the New York Times by Stanley Fish on what colleges should teach (parts 1, 2, 3); however, by the time students reach us in college, the habits of poor grammar and faulty sentence construction are far more difficult to beat. We're training students to sound dumb in print—a tragedy in an increasingly text-based, Internet-driven world.

What's a teacher to do?

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